The Zero Clue

by Rex Stout

Chapter 1

It began with a combination of circumstances, but what doesn't? To mention just one, if there hadn't been a couple of checks to deposit that morning I might not have been in that neighborhood at all.

But I was, and, approving of the bright sun and the sharp clear air as I turned east off Lexington Avenue into Thirty-seventh Street, I walked some forty paces to the number and found it was a five-story yellow brick, clean and neat, with greenery in tubs flanking the entrance. I went in. The lobby, not much bigger than my bedroom, had a fancy rug, a fireplace without a fire, more greenery, and a watchdog in uniform who challenged me with a suspicious look.

As I opened my mouth to meet his challenge, circumstances combined. A big guy in a dark blue topcoat and homburg, entering from the street, breezed past me, heading for the elevator, and as he did so the elevator door opened and a girl emerged.

Four of us in that undersized lobby made a crowd, and we had to maneuver. Meanwhile I was speaking to the watchdog.

"My name's Goodwin, and I'm calling on Leo Heller."

Gazing at me, his expression changing, he blurted at me, "Ain't you Archie Goodwin works for Nero Wolfe?"

The girl, making for the exit, stopped a step short of it and turned, and the big guy, inside the elevator, blocked the door from closing and stuck his head out, while the watchdog was going on, "I've saw your picture in the paper, and look, I want Nero Wolfe's autograph."

It would have been more to the point he had wanted mine, but I'm no hog. The man in the elevator, which was self-service, was letting the door close, but the girl was standing by, and I hated to disappoint her by denying I was me, as of course I would have had to do if I had been there on operation that needed cover.

I'll have to let her stand there a minute while I explain that I was actually not on operation at all. Chiefly, I was satisfying my curiosity. At five in the afternoon the day before, in Nero Wolfe's office, there been a phone call. After taking it I had gone to the kitchen -- where Fritz was boning a pig's head for what he calls fromage de cochon -- to get a glass of water, and told Fritz I was going upstairs to do a little yapping.

"He is so happy up there," Fritz protested, but there was a gleam in his eye. He knows darned well that if I quit yapping the day would come when there would be no money in the bank to meet the payroll, including him.

I went up three flights, on past the bedroom floors to the roof, where ten thousand square feet of glass in aluminum frames make a home for ten thousand orchid plants. The riot of color on the benches of the three rooms doesn't take my breath any more, but it is unquestionably a show, and as I went through that day I kept my eyes straight ahead to preserve my mood for yapping intact. However, it was wasted. In the intermediate room Wolfe stood massively, with an Odontoglossum seedling in his hand, glaring at it, a mountain of cold fury, with Theodore Horstmann, the orchid nurse, standing nearby with his lips tightened to a thin line.

As I approached, Wolfe transferred the glare to me and barked savagely, "Thrips!"

I did some fast mood shifting. There's a time to yap and a time not to yap. But I went on.

"What do you want?" he rasped.

"I realize," I said politely but firmly, "that this is ill timed, but I told Mr. Heller I would speak to you. He phoned --"

"Speak to me later! If at all!"

"I'm to call him back. It's Leo Heller, the probability wizard. He says that calculations have led him to suspect that a client of his may have committed a serious crime, but it's only a suspicion and he doesn't want to tell the police until it has been investigated, and he wants us to investigate. I asked for details, but he wouldn't give them on the phone. I thought I might as well ran over there now -- it's over on East Thirty-seventh Street -- and find out if it looks like a job. He wouldn't --"


"My eardrums are not insured. No what?"

"Get out!" He shook the thrips-infested seedling at me. "I don't want it! That man couldn't hire me for any conceivable job on any imaginable terms! Get out!"

I turned, prompt but dignified, and went. If he had thrown the seedling at me I would of course have dodged, and the fairly heavy pot would have sailed on by and crashed into a cluster of Calanthes in full bloom and God only knew what Wolfe would have done then.

On my way back down to the office I was wearing a grin. Even without the thrips, Wolfe's reaction to my message would have been substantially the same, which was why I had been prepared to yap. The thrips had merely keyed it up. Leo Heller had been tagged by fame, with articles about him in magazines and Sunday newspapers. While making a living as a professor of mathematics at Underhill College, he had begun, for amusement, to apply the laws of probability, through highly complicated mathematical formulas, to various current events, ranging from ball games and horse races to farm crops and elections. Checking back on his records after a couple of years, he had been startled and pleased to find that the answers he had got from his formulas had been 86.3 per cent correct, and he had written a piece about it for a magazine. Naturally requests had started corning from all kinds of people for all kinds of calculations, and he had granted some of them to be obliging, but when he had tried telling a woman in Yonkers where to look for thirty-one thousand dollars in currency she had lost, and she had followed instructions and found it and had insisted on giving him two grand, he sidestepped to a fresh slant on the laws of probability as applied to human problems and resigned his professorship.

That had been three years ago, and now he was sitting pretty. It was said that his annual take was in six figures, that he re turned all his mail unanswered, accepting only clients who called in person, and that there was nothing on earth he wouldn't try to dope a formula for, provided he was furnished with enough factors to make it feasible. It had been suggested that he should be hauled in for fortune telling, but the cops and the DA's office let it lay, as well they might, since he had a college degree and there were at least a thousand fortunetellers operating in New York who had never made it through high school.

It wasn't known whether Heller was keeping his percentage up to 86.3, but I happened to know it wasn't goose eggs. Some months earlier a president of a big corporation had hired Wolfe to find out which member of his staff was giving trade secrets to a competitor. I had been busy on another case at the time, and Wolfe had put Orrie Cather on the collection of details. Orrie had made a long job of it, and the first we knew we were told by the corporation president that he had got impatient and gone to Leo Heller with the problem, and Heller had cooked up a formula and come out with an answer, the name of one of the junior vice-presidents, and the junior VP had confessed! Our client freely admitted that most of the facts he had given Heller for the ingredients of his formula had been supplied by us, gathered by Orrie Cather, and he offered no objection to paying our bill, but Wolfe was so sore he actually told me to send no bill -- an instruction I disregarded, knowing how he would regret it after he had cooled off. However, as I was aware through occasional mutterings from him, he still had it in for Leo Heller, and taking on any kind of job for him would have been absolutely off the program that day or any other day, even if there had been no thrips within a mile of Thirty-fifth Street.

Back downstairs in the office, I phoned Heller and told him nothing doing. "He's extremely sensitive," I explained, "and this is an insult. As you know, he's the greatest detective that ever lived, and -- do you know that?"

"I'm willing to postulate it," Heller conceded in a thin voice that tended to squeak. "Why an insult?"

"Because you want to hire Nero Wolfe -- meaning me, really -- to collect facts on which you can base a decision whether your suspicion about your client is justified. You might as well try to hire Stan Musial as bat boy. Mr. Wolfe doesn't sell the raw material for answers; he sells answers."

"I'm quite willing to pay him for an answer, any amount short of exorbitance, and in cash. I'm gravely concerned about this client, this situation, and my data is insufficient. I shall be delighted if with the data I get an answer from Mr. Wolfe, and --"

"And," I put in, "if his answer is that your client has committed a serious crime, as you suspect, he decides whether and when to call a cop, not you. Yes?"

"Certainly." Heller was eager to oblige. "I do not intend or desire to shield a criminal -- on the contrary."

"Okay. Then it's like this. It wouldn't do any good for me to take it up with Mr. Wolfe again today because his feelings have been hurt. But tomorrow morning I have to go to our bank on Lexington Avenue not far from your place, to deposit a couple of checks, and I could drop in to see you and get the sketch. I suspect that I make this offer mostly because I'm curious to see what you look like and talk like, but I haven't enough data to apply the laws of probability to it. Frankly, I doubt if Mr. Wolfe will take this on, but we can always use money, and I'll try to sell him. Shall I come?"

"What time?"

"Say a quarter past ten."

"Come ahead. My business day begins at eleven. Take the elevator to the fifth floor. An arrow points right, to the waiting room, but go left to the door at the end of the hall, and push the button, and I'll let you in. If you're on time we'll have more than half an hour."

"I'm always on time."

That morning I was a little early. It was nine minutes past ten when I entered the lobby on Thirty-seventh Street and gave the watchdog my name.

Chapter 2

I told the watchdog I would try to get Nero Wolfe's autograph for him, and wrote his name in my notebook: Nils Lamm. Meanwhile the girl stood there facing us, frowning at us. She was twenty-three or -four, up to my chin, and without the deep frown her face would probably have deserved attention. Since she showed no trace of embarrassment, staring fixedly at a stranger, I saw no reason why I should, but something had to be said, so I asked her, "Do you want one?"

She cocked her head. "One what?"

"Autograph. Either Mr. Wolfe's or mine, take your pick."

"Oh. You are Archie Goodwin, aren't you? I've seen your picture too."

"Then I'm it."

"I --" She hesitated, then made up her mind. "I want to ask you something."


Someone trotted in from the street, a brisk female in mink, executive type, between twenty and sixty, and the girl and I moved aside to clear the lane to the elevator. The newcomer told Nils Lamm she was seeing Leo Heller and refused to give her name, but when Lamm insisted she coughed it up: Agatha Abbey, she said, and he let her take the elevator. The girl told me she had been working all night and was tired, and we went to a bench by the fireplace. Close up.

I would still have said twenty-three or -four, but someone or something had certainly been harassing her. Naturally there was a question in my mind about the night work.

She answered it. "My name's Susan Maturo, and I'm a registered nurse."

"Thanks. You know mine, and I'm a registered detective."

She nodded. "That's why I want to ask you something. If I hired Nero Wolfe to investigate a -- a matter, how much would it cost?"

I raised my shoulders half an inch and let them down. "It all depends. The kind of matter, the amount of time taken, the wear and tear on his brain, the state of your finances..."

I paused, letting it hang, to return a rude stare that was being aimed at us by another arrival, a thin tall bony specimen in a brown suit that badly needed pressing, with a bulging briefcase under his arm. When my gaze met his he called it off and turned and strode to the elevator, without any exchange with Nils Lamm.

I resumed to Susan Maturo. "Have you got a matter, or are you just researching?"

"Oh, I've got a matter." She set her teeth on her lip - nice teeth, and not a bad lip -- and kept them that way a while, regarding me. Then she went on, "It hit me hard, and it's been getting worse in me instead of better. I began to be afraid I was going batty, and I decided to come to this Leo Heller and see what he could do, so I came this morning, but I was sitting up there in his waiting room -- two people were already there, a man and a woman -- and it went all through me that I was just being bitter and vindictive, and I don't think I'm really like that -- I'm pretty sure I never have been --"

Apparently she needed some cooperation, so I assured her, "You don't look vindictive."

She touched my sleeve with her fingertips to thank me. "So I got up and left, and then as I was leaving the elevator I heard that man saying your name and who you are, and it popped into my head to ask you. I asked how much it would cost to have Nero Wolfe investigate, but that was premature, because what I really want is to tell him about it and get his advice about investigating."

She was dead serious and she was all worked up, so I arranged my face and voice to fit, "It's like this," I told her, "for that kind of approach to Mr. Wolfe, with no big fee in prospect, some expert preparation is required, and I'm the only expert in the field." I glanced at my wrist and saw 10:19. "I've got a date, but I can spare five minutes if you want to brief me on the essentials, and then I'll tell you how it strikes me. What was it that hit you?"

She looked at me, shot a glance at Nils Lamm, who couldn't have moved out of earshot in that lobby if he had wanted to, and came back to me. Her jaw quivered, and she clamped it tight and held it for a moment, then released it and spoke. "When I start to talk about it, it sticks in my throat and chokes me, and five minutes wouldn't be enough, and anyway I need someone old and wise like Nero Wolfe. Won't you let me see him?"

I promised to try. I told her that it would be hard to find any man in the metropolitan area more willing to help an attractive girl in distress than I was, but it would be a waste of time and effort for me to take her in to Wolfe cold, and though I was neither old nor wise she would have to give me at least a full outline before I could furnish either an opinion or help. She agreed mat that was reasonable and gave me her address and phone number, and we arranged to communicate later in the day. I went and opened the door for her, and she departed.

On the way up in the elevator my watch said 10:28, so I wasn't on time after all, but we would still have half an hour before Heller's business day began. On the fifth floor a plaque on the wall facing the elevator was lettered LEO HELLER, WAITING ROOM, with an arrow pointing right, and at that end of the narrow hall a door bore the invitation, WALK IN. I turned left, toward the other end, where I pushed a button beside a door, noticing as I did so that the door was ajar a scanty inch. When my ring brought no response, and a second one, more prolonged, didn't either, I shoved the door open, crossed the sill, and called Heller's name. No reply. There was no one in sight.

Thinking that he had probably stepped into the waiting room and would soon return, I glanced around to see what the lair of a probability wizard looked like, and was impressed by some outstanding features. The door, of metal, was a good three inches thick, either for security or for soundproofing, or maybe both. If there were any windows they were behind the heavy draperies; the artificial light came indirectly from channels in the walls just beneath the ceiling. The air was conditioned. There were locks on all the units of a vast assembly of filing cabinets that took up all the rear wall. The floor, with no rugs, was tiled with some velvety material on which a footfall was barely audible.

The thick door was for soundproofing. I had closed it, nearly, on entering, and the silence was complete. Not a sound of the city could be heard, though the clang and clatter of Lexington Avenue was nearby one way and Third Avenue the other.

I crossed for a look at the desk, but there was nothing remarkable about it except that it was twice the usual size. Among other items it held a rack of books with titles that were not tempting, an abacus of ivory or a good imitation, and a stack of legal-size working pads. Stray sheets of paper were scattered, and a single pad had on its top sheet some scribbled formulas that looked like doodles by Einstein. Also a jar of sharpened lead pencils had been overturned, and some of them were in a sort of a pattern near the edge of the desk.

I had been in there ten minutes, and no Heller; and when, at eleven o'clock by schedule, Wolfe came down to the office from his morning session with the orchids, it was desirable that I should be present. So I went, leaving the door ajar as I had found it, walked down the hall to the door of the waiting room at the other end, and entered.

This room was neither air-conditioned nor soundproofed. Someone had opened a window a couple of inches, and the din was, jangling in. Five people were here and there on chairs; three of them I had seen before: the big guy in the dark blue topcoat and homburg, the brisk female in mink who called herself Agatha Abbey, and the tall thin specimen with a briefcase. Neither of the other two was Leo Heller. One was a swarthy little article, slick and sly, with his hair pasted to his scalp, and the other was a big blob of an overfed matron with a spare chin.

I addressed the gathering. "Has Mr. Heller been in here?"

A couple of them shook their heads, and the swarthy article said hoarsely, "Not visible till eleven o'clock, and you take your turn."

I thanked him, left, and went back to the other room. Still no Heller. I didn't bother to call his name again, since even if it had flushed him I would have had to leave immediately. So I departed. Down in the lobby I again told Nils Lamm I'd see what I could do about an autograph. Outside, deciding there wasn't time to walk it, I flagged a taxi. Home again, I hadn't been in the office more than twenty seconds when the sound came of Wolfe's elevator descending. That was a funny thing. I'm strong on hunches, and I've had some beauts during the years I've been with Wolfe, but that day there wasn't the slightest glimmer of something impending. You might think that was an ideal spot for a hunch, but no, not a sign of a tickle. I was absolutely blithe as I asked Wolfe how the anti-thrips campaign was doing, and later, after lunch, as I dialed the number Susan Maturo had given me, though I admit I was a little dampened when I got no answer, since I had the idea of finding out someday how she would look with the frown gone.

But still later, shortly after six o'clock, I went to answer the doorbell and through the one-way glass panel saw Inspector Cramer of Manhattan Homicide there on the stoop. There was an instant reaction in the lower third of my spine, but I claim no credit for a hunch, since after all a homicide inspector does not go around ringing doorbells to sell tickets to the Policemen's Annual Ball.

I let him in and took him to the office, where Wolfe was drinking beer and scowling at three United States senators on television.

Chapter 3

Cramer, bulky and burly, with a big red face and sharp and skeptical gray eyes, sat in the red leather chair near the end of Wolfe's desk. He had declined an offer of beer, the TV had been turned off, and the lights had been turned on.

Cramer spoke. "I dropped in on my way down, and I haven't got long." He was gruff, which was normal. "I'd appreciate some quick information. What are you doing for Leo Heller?"

"Nothing." Wolfe was brusque, which was also normal.

"You're not working for him?"


"Then why did Goodwin go to see him this morning?"

"He didn't."

"Hold it," I put in. "I went on my own, just exploring. Mr. Wolfe didn't know I was going, and this is the first he's heard of it."

There were two simultaneous looks of exasperation -- Cramer's at Wolfe, and Wolfe's at me. Cramer backed his up with words. "For God's sake. This is the rawest one you ever tried to pull! Been rehearsing it all afternoon?"

Wolfe let me go temporarily, to cope with Cramer. "Pfui. Suppose we have. Justify your marching into my house to demand an accounting of Mr. Goodwin's movements. What if he did call on Mr. Heller? Has Mr. Heller been found dead?"


"Indeed." Wolfe's brows went up a little. "Violence?"

"Murdered. Shot through the heart."

"On his premises?"

"Yeah. I'd like to hear from Goodwin."

Wolfe's eyes darted to me. "Did you kill Mr. Heller, Archie?"

"No, sir."

"Then oblige Mr. Cramer, please. He's in a hurry."

I obliged. First telling about the phone call the day before, and Wolfe's refusal to take on anything for Heller, and my calling Heller back, I then reported on my morning visit at Thirty-seventh Street, supplying all details, except that I soft-pedaled Susan Maturo's state of harassment, putting it merely that she asked me to arrange for her to see Wolfe and didn't tell me what about. When I had finished, Cramer had a few questions. Among them:

"So you didn't see Heller at all?"


He grunted. "I know only too well how nosy you are, Goodwin. There were three doors in the walls of that room besides the one you entered by. You didn't open any of them?"


"One of them is the door to the closet in which Heller's body was found by a caller, a friend, at three o'clock this afternoon. The medical examiner says that the sausage and griddle cakes he ate for breakfast at nine-thirty hadn't been in him more than an hour when he died, so it's practically certain that the body was in the closet while you were there in the room. As nosy as you are, you're telling me that you didn't open the door and see the body?"

"Yep. I apologize. Next time I'll open every damn door in sight."

"A gun had been fired. You didn't smell it?"

"No. Air-conditioned."

"You didn't look through the desk drawers?"

"No. I apologize again."

"We did." Cramer took something from his breast pocket. "In one drawer we found this envelope, sealed. On it was written in pencil, in Heller's hand, 'Mr. Nero Wolfe.' In it were five one-hundred-dollar bills."

"I'm sorry I missed that," I said with feeling.

Wolfe stirred. "I assume that has been examined for fingerprints."


"May I see it, please?"

Wolfe extended a hand. Cramer hesitated a moment, then tossed it across to the desk, and Wolfe picked it up. He took out the bills, crisp new ones, counted them, and looked inside.

"This was sealed," he observed dryly, "with my name on it, and you opened it."

"We sure did." Cramer came forward in his chair with a hand stretched. "Let me have it."

It was a demand, not a request, and Wolfe reacted impulsively. If he had taken a second to think he would have realized that if he claimed it he would have to earn it, or at least pretend to, but Cramer's tone of voice was the kind of provocation he would not take. He returned the bills to the envelope and put it in his pocket.

"It's mine," he stated.

"It's evidence," Cramer growled, "and I want it."

Wolfe shook his head. "Evidence of what? As an officer of the law, you should be acquainted with it." He tapped his pocket with a fingertip. "My property. Connect it, or connect me, with a crime."

Cramer was controlling himself, which wasn't easy under the circumstances. "I might have known," he said bitterly. "You want to be connected with a crime? Okay. I don't know how many times I've sat in this chair and listened to you making assumptions. I'm not saying you never make good on them, I just say you're strong on assumptions. Now I've got some of my own to offer, but first here are a few facts. In that building on Thirty-seventh Street, Heller lived on the fourth floor and worked on the fifth, the top floor. At five minutes to ten this morning, on good evidence, he left his living quarters to go up to his office. Goodwin says he entered that office at ten-twenty-eight, so if the body was in the closet when Goodwin was there -- and it almost certainly was -- Heller was killed "between nine-fifty-five and ten-twenty-eight. We can't find anyone who heard the shot, and the way that room is proofed we probably never will. We've tested it."

Cramer squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again, a trick of his. "Very well. From the doorman we've got a list of everyone who entered the place during that period, and most of them have been collected, and we're getting the others. There were six of them. The nurse, Susan Mature, left before Goodwin went up, and the other five left later, at intervals, when they got tired waiting for Heller to show up -- according to them. As it stands now, and I don't see what could change it, one of them killed Heller. Any of them, on leaving the elevator at the fifth floor, could have gone to Heller's office and shot him, and then to the waiting room."

Wolfe muttered, "Putting the body in the closet?"

"Of course, to postpone its discovery. If someone happened to see the murderer leaving the office, he had to be able to say he had gone in to look for Heller and Heller wasn't there, and he couldn't if the body was there in sight. There are marks on the floor where the body -- and Heller was a featherweight -- was dragged to the closet. In leaving, he left the door ajar, to make it more plausible, if someone saw him, that he had found it that way. Also --"


"I'll tell him you said so the first chance I get. Also, of course, he couldn't leave the building. Knowing that Heller started to see callers at eleven o'clock, those people had all come early so as not to have a long wait. Including the murderer. He had to go to the waiting room and wait with the others. One of them did leave, the nurse, and she made a point of telling Goodwin why she was going, and it's up to her to make it stick under questioning."

"You were going to connect me with a crime."

"Right." Cramer was positive. "First one more fact. The gun was in the closet with the body, under it on the floor. It's an old Gusteinflug, a nasty little short-nose, and there's not a chance in a thousand of tracing it, though we're trying. Now here are my assumptions. The murderer went armed to kill, pushed the button at the door of Heller's office, and was admitted. Since Heller went to his desk and sat, he couldn't --"


"Yes. He couldn't have been in fear of a mortal attack. But after some conversation, which couldn't have been more than a few minutes on account of the timetable as verified, he was not only in fear, he felt that death was upon him, and in that super-soundproofed room he was helpless. The gun had been drawn and was aimed at him. He knew it was all up. He talked, trying to stall, not because he had any hope of living, but because he wanted to leave a message to be read after he was dead. Shaking with nervousness, with a trembling hand, perhaps a pleading one, he upset the jar of pencils on his desk, and then he nervously fumbled with them, moving them around on the desk in front of him, all the while talking. Then the gun went off, and he wasn't nervous any more. The murderer circled the desk, made sure his victim was dead, and dragged the body to the closet. It didn't occur to him that the scattered pencils had been arranged to convey a message -- if it had, one sweep of a hand would have taken care of it. It was desperately urgent for him to get out of there and into the waiting room."

Cramer stood up. "If you'll let me have eight pencils I'll show you how they were."

Wolfe opened his desk drawer, but I got there first with a handful taken from my tray. Cramer moved around to Wolfe's side, and Wolfe, making a face, moved his chair to make room.

"I'm in Heller's place at his desk," Cramer said, "and I'm putting them as he did from where he sat." After getting the eight pencils arranged to his satisfaction, he stepped aside. "There it is, take a look."

Wolfe inspected it from his side, and I from mine. It was like this from Wolfe's side:

"Approximately," I conceded. "I didn't know there was a corpse in the closet at the time, so I wasn't as interested in it as you were. But since you ask me, the pencil points were not all in the same direction, and an eraser from one of them was there in the middle." I put a fingertip on the spot. "Right there."

"Fix it as you saw it."

I went around and joined them at Wolfe's side of the desk and did as requested, removing an eraser from one of the pencils and placing it as I had indicated. Then it was like this:

"You say," Wolfe inquired, "that was a message?"

"Yes," Cramer asserted. "It has to be."

"By mandate? Yours?"

"Blah. You know damn well there's not one chance in a million those pencils took that pattern by accident. Goodwin, you saw them. Were they like that?"

"Of course," I said, "you had the photographer shoot it. I don't say that's exact, but they were pointing in different directions, and the eraser was there."

"Didn't you realize it was a message?"

"Nuts. Someday you'll set a trap that'll catch me, and I'll snarl. Sure, I thought it was Heller's way of telling me he had gone to the bathroom and would be back in eight minutes. Eight pencils, see? Pretty clever. Isn't that how you read it?"

"It is not." Cramer was emphatic. "I think Heller turned it sideways to make it less likely that his attacker would see what it was. Move around here, please. Both of you. Look at it from here."

Wolfe and I joined him at the left end of the desk and looked as requested. One glance was enough. You can see what we saw by turning the page a quarter-turn counterclockwise.

Cramer spoke. "Could you ask for a plainer NW?"

"I could," I objected. "Why the extra pencil on the left of the W?"

"He put it there deliberately, for camouflage, to make it less obvious, or it rolled there accidentally, I don't care which. It is unmistakably NW." He focused on Wolfe. "I promised to connect you with a crime."

Wolfe, back in his chair, interlaced his fingers. "You're not serious."

"The hell I'm not." Cramer returned to. the red leather chair and sat. "That's why I came here, and came alone. You deny you sent Goodwin there, but I don't believe you. He admits he was in Heller's office ten minutes, because he has to, since the doorman saw him go up and five people saw him enter the waiting room. In a drawer of Heller's desk is an envelope addressed to you, containing five hundred dollars in cash. But the clincher is that message. Heller, seated at his desk, sure that he is going to be killed in a matter of seconds, uses those seconds to leave a message. Can there be any question what the message was about? Not for me. It was about the person or persons responsible for his death. I am assuming that its purpose was to identify that person or persons. Do you reject that assumption?"

"No. I think it quite likely. Highly probable."

"You admit it?"

"I don't admit it, I state it."

"Then I ask you to suggest any person or persons other than you whom the initials NW might identify. Unless you can do that here and now I'm going to take you and Goodwin downtown as material witnesses. I've got men in cars outside. If I didn't do it the DA would."

Wolfe straightened up and sighed deep, clear down. "You are being uncommonly obnoxious, Mr. Cramer." He got to his feet. "Excuse me a moment." Detouring around Cramer's feet, he crossed to the other side of the room, to the bookshelves back of the big globe, reached up to a high one, took a book down, and opened it. He was too far away for me to see what it was. He turned first to the back of the book, where the index would be if it had one, and then to a page near the middle of it. He went on to another page, and another, while Cramer, containing his emotions under pressure, got a cigar from a pocket, stuck it in his mouth and sank his teeth in it. He never lit one.

Finally Wolfe returned to his desk, opened a drawer and put the book in it, and closed and locked the drawer. Cramer was speaking. "I'm not being fantastic. You didn't kill him; you weren't there. I'm not even assuming Goodwin killed him, though he could have. I'm saying that Heller left a message that would give a lead to the killer, and the message says NW, and that stands for Nero Wolfe, and therefore you know something, and I want to know what. I want a yes or no to this. Do you or do you not know something that indicates, or may indicate, who murdered Leo Heller?"

Wolfe, settled in his chair again, nodded. "Yes "

"Ah. You do. What?"

"The message he left."

"The message only says NW. Go on from there."

"I need more information. I need to know - are the pencils still there on his desk as you found them?"

"Yes, They haven't been disturbed."

"You have a man there, of course. Get him on the phone and let me talk to him. You will hear us."

Cramer hesitated, not liking it, then decided he might as well string along, came to my desk, dialed a number, got his man, and told him Wolfe would speak to him. Wolfe took it with his phone while Cramer stayed at mine.

Wolfe was courteous but crisp. "I understand those pencils are there on the desk as they were found, that all but one of them have erasers in their ends, and that an eraser is there on the desk, between the two groups of pencils. Is that correct?"

"Right," The dick sounded bored. I was getting it from the phone on the table over by the globe.

"Take the eraser and insert it in the end of the pencil that hasn't one in it. I want to know if the eraser was loose enough to slip out accidentally."

"Inspector, are you on? You said not to disturb --"

"Go ahead," Cramer growled. "I'm right here."

"Yes, sir. Hold it, please."

There was a long wait, and then he was back on. "The eraser couldn't have slipped out accidentally. Part of it is still clamped in the end of the pencil. It had to be pulled out, torn apart, and the torn surfaces are bright and fresh. I can pull one out of another pencil and tell you how much force it takes."

"No, thank you, that's all I need. But to make certain, and for the record, I suggest that you send the pencil and eraser to the laboratory to check that the torn surfaces fit."

"Do I do that, Inspector?"

"Yeah, you might as well. Mark them properly."

"Yes, sir."

Cramer returned to the red leather chair, and I went to mine. He tilted the cigar upward from the corner of his mouth and demanded, "So what?"

"You know quite well what," Wolfe declared. "The eraser was yanked out and placed purposely, and was a part of the message. No doubt as a dot after the N to show it was an initial? And he was interrupted permanently before he could put one after the W?"

"Sarcasm don't change it any. It's still NW."

"No. It isn't. It never was."

"For me and the district attorney it is. I guess we'd better get on down to his office."

Wolfe upturned a palm. "There you are. You're not hare-brained, but you are pigheaded. I warn you, sir, that if you proceed on the assumption that Mr. Heller's message says NW, you are doomed; the best you can expect is to be tagged a jackass."

"I suppose you know what it does say."


"You do?"


"I'm waiting."

"You'll continue to wait. If I thought I could earn this money" -- Wolfe tapped his pocket -- "by deciphering that message for you, that would be simple, but in your present state of mind you would only think I was contriving a humbug."

"Try me."

"No, sir." Wolfe half closed his eyes. "An alternative. You can go on as you have started and see where it lands you, understanding that Mr. Goodwin and I will persistently deny any knowledge of the affair or those concerned in it except what has been given you, and I'll pursue my own course; or you can bring the murderer here and let me at him -- with you present."

"I'll be glad to. Name him."

"When I find him. I need all six of them, to learn which one Heller's message identifies. Since I can translate the message and you can't, you need me more than I need you, but you can save me much time and trouble and expense."

Cramer's level gaze had no trace whatever of affection or sympathy. "If you can translate that message and refuse to disclose it, you're withholding evidence."

"Nonsense. A conjecture is not evidence. Heaven knows your conjecture that it says NW isn't. Nor is mine, but it should lead to some if I do the leading." Wolfe flung a hand impatiently, and his voice rose. "Confound it, am I suggesting a gambol for my refreshment? Do you think I welcome an invasion of my premises by platoons of policemen herding a drove of scared and suspected citizens?"

"No. I know damn well you don't."

Cramer took the cigar from his mouth and regarded it as if trying to decide exactly what it was. That accomplished, he glanced at Wolfe and then looked at me, by no means as a bosom friend.

"I'll use the phone," he said, and got up and came to my desk.

Chapter 4

With three of the six scared citizens, it was a good thing that Wolfe didn't have to start from scratch. They had been absolutely determined not to tell why they had gone to see Leo Heller, and, as we learned from the transcripts of interviews and copies of statements they had signed, the cops had had a time dragging it out of them.

By the time the first one was brought to us in the office, a little after eight o'clock, Wolfe had sort of resigned himself to personal misery and was bravely facing it. Not only had he had to devour his dinner in one-fourth the usual time; also he had been compelled to break one of his strictest rules and read documents while eating -- and all that in the company of Inspector Cramer, who had accepted an invitation to have a bite. Of course Cramer returned to the office with us and called in, from the assemblage in the front room, a police stenographer, who settled himself in a chair at the end of my desk. Sergeant Purley Stebbins, who once in a spasm of generosity admitted that he couldn't prove I was a hoodlum, after bringing the citizen in and seating him facing Wolfe and Cramer, took a chair against the wall.

The citizen, whose name as furnished by the documents was John R. Winslow, was the big guy in a dark blue topcoat and homburg who had stuck his head out of the elevator for a look at Archie Goodwin. He now looked unhappy and badly wilted, and was one of the three who had tried to refuse to tell what he had gone to Heller for; and considering what it was I couldn't blame him much.

He started in complaining. "I think -- I think this is unconstitutional. The police have forced me to tell about my private affairs, and maybe that couldn't be helped, but Nero Wolfe is a private detective, and I don't have to submit to questioning by him."

"I'm here," Cramer said. "I can repeat Wolfe's questions if you insist, but it will take more time."

"Suppose," Wolfe suggested, "we start and see how it goes. I've read your statement, Mr. Winslow, and I --"

"You had no right to! They had no right to let you! They promised me it would be confidential unless it had to be used as evidence!"

"Please, Mr. Winslow, don't bounce up like that. A hysterical woman is bad enough, but a hysterical man is insufferable. I assure you I am as discreet as any policeman. According to your statement, today was your third visit to Mr. Heller's office. You were trying to supply him with enough information for him to devise a formula for determining how much longer your aunt will live. You expect to inherit a considerable fortune from her, and you wanted to make plans intelligently based on reasonable expectations. So you say, but reports are being received which indicate that you are deeply in debt and are hard pressed. Do you deny that?"

"No." Winslow's jaw worked. "I don't deny it."

"Are your debts, or any part of them, connected with any violation of the law? Any criminal act?"


"Granted that Mr. Heller could furnish a valid calculation on your aunt's life, how would that help you any?"

Winslow looked at Cramer and met only a stony stare. He went back to Wolfe. "I was negotiating to borrow a very large sum against my -- expectations. There was to be a certain percentage added for each month that passed before repayment was made, and I had to know what my chances were. It was a question of probabilities, and I went to an expert."

"What data had you given Heller as a basis for his calculations?"

"My God, I couldn't -- all kinds of things."

"For instance?" Wolfe insisted.

Winslow looked at the police stenographer and me, but we couldn't help. He returned to Wolfe. "Hundreds of things. My aunt's age, her habits -- eating, sleeping, everything I could -- her health as far as I knew about it, the ages of her parents and grandparents when they died, her weight and build -- I gave him photographs -- her activities and interests, her temperament, her attitude to doctors, her politics --"


"Yes. Heller said her pleasure or pain at the election of Eisenhower was a longevity factor."

Wolfe grunted. "The claptrap of the charlatan. Did he also consider as a longevity factor the possibility that you might intervene by dispatching your aunt?"

That struck Winslow as funny. He did not guffaw, but he tittered, and it did not suit his build. Wolfe insisted, "Did he?"

"I really don't know, really." Winslow tittered again.

"From whom did your aunt inherit her fortune?"

"Her husband. My Uncle Norton."

"When did he die?"

"Six years ago. In nineteen forty-seven."

"How? Of what?"

"He was shot accidentally while hunting. Hunting deer."

"Were you present?"

"Not present, no. I was more than a mile away at the time."

"Did you get a legacy from him?"

"No." Some emotion was mobilizing Winslow's blood and turning his face pink. "He sneered at me. He left me six cents in his will. He didn't like me."

Wolfe turned to speak to Cramer, but the inspector forestalled him. "Two men are already on it. The shooting accident was up in Maine."

"I would like to say how I feel about this," Winslow told them. "I mean the questions that have been asked me about my uncle's death. I regard them as a compliment. They assume that I might have been capable of shooting my uncle, and that is a very high compliment, and you say there are two men on it, so it is being investigated, and that is a compliment too. My aunt would be amused at the idea of my having killed Uncle Norton, and she would be amused at the idea that I might try to kill her. I wouldn't mind a bit having her know about that, but if she finds out what I went to Leo Heller for -- God help me." He gestured in appeal. "I was promised, absolutely promised."

"We disclose people's private affairs," Cramer rumbled, "only when it is unavoidable."

Wolfe was pouring beer. When the foam was at the rim he put the bottle down and resumed. "I have promised nothing, Mr. Winslow, but I have no time for tattle. Here's a suggestion. You're in this pickle only because of your association with Mr. Heller, and the question is, was there anything in that association to justify this badgering? Suppose you tell us. Start at the beginning, and recall as well as you can every word that passed between you. Go right through it. I'll interrupt as little as possible."

"You've already seen it," Cramer objected. "The transcript, the statement -- what the hell, have you got a lead or haven't you?"

Wolfe nodded. "We have a night for it," he said, not happily. "Mr. Winslow doesn't know what the lead is, and it's Greek to you." He went to Winslow. "Go ahead, sir. Everything that you said to Mr. Heller, and everything he said to you."

It took more than an hour, including interruptions. The interruptions came from various city employees who were scattered around the house -- the front room, the dining room, and three bedrooms -- working on other scared citizens, and from the telephone. Two of the phone calls were from homicide dicks who were trying to locate a citizen who had got mislaid -- one named Henrietta Tillotson, Mrs. Albert Tillotson, the overfed matron whom I had seen in Heller's waiting room with the others. There were also calls from the police commissioner and the DA's office and other interested parties.

When Purley Stebbins got up to escort Winslow from the room, Wolfe's lead was still apparently Greek to Cramer, as it was to me. As the door closed behind them Cramer spoke emphatically. "I think it's a goddam farce. I think that message was NW, meaning you, and you're stalling for some kind of a play."

"And if so?" Wolfe was testy. "Why are you tolerating this? Because if the message did mean me I'm the crux, and your only alternative is to cart me downtown, and that would merely make me mum, and you know it." He drank beer and put the glass down. "However, maybe we can expedite it without too great a risk. Tell your men who are now interviewing these people to be alert for something connected with the figure six. They must give no hint of it, they must themselves not mention it, but if the figure six appears in any segment of the interview they should concentrate on that segment until it is exhausted. They all know, I presume, of Heller's suspicion that one of his clients had committed a serious crime?"

"They know that Goodwin says so. What's this about six?"

Wolfe shook his head. "That will have to do. Even that may be foolhardy, since they're your men, not mine."

"Winslow's uncle died six years ago and left him six cents."

"I'm quite aware of it. You say that is being investigated. Do you want Mr. Goodwin to pass this word?"

Cramer said no thanks, he would, and left the room.

By the time he returned, citizen number two had been brought in by Stebbins, introduced to Wolfe, and seated where Winslow had been. She was Susan Maturo. She looked fully as harassed as she had that morning, but I wouldn't say much more so. There was now, of course, a new aspect to the matter: did she look harassed or guilty? She was undeniably attractive, but so had Maude Vail been, and she had poisoned two husbands. There was the consideration that if Heller had been killed by the client whom he suspected of having committed a crime, it must have been a client he had seen previously at least once, or how could he have got grounds for a suspicion; and, according to Susan Maturo, she had never called on Heller before and had never seen him. But actually that eliminated neither her nor Agatha Abbey, who also claimed that that morning had been her first visit. It was known that Heller had sometimes made engagements by telephone to meet prospective clients elsewhere, and Miss Maturo and Miss Abbey might well have been among that number.

Opening up on her, Wolfe was not too belligerent, probably because she had accepted an offer of beer and, after drinking some, had licked her lips. It pleases him when people share his joys.

"You are aware, Miss Maturo," he told her, "that you are in a class by yourself. The evidence indicates that Mr. Heller was killed by one of the six people who entered that building this morning to call on him, and you are the only one of the six who departed before eleven o'clock, Mr. Heller's appointment hour. Your explanation of your departure as given in your statement is close to incoherent. Can't you improve on it?"

She looked at me. I did not throw her a kiss, but neither did I glower. "I've reported what you told me," I assured her, "exactly as you said it."

She nodded at me vaguely and turned to Wolfe. "Do I have to go through it again?"

"You will probably," Wolfe advised her, "have to go through it again a dozen times. Why did you leave?"

She gulped, started to speak, found no sound was coming out, and had to start over again. "You know about the explosion and fire at the Montrose Hospital a month ago?"

"Certainly. I read newspapers."

"You know that three hundred and two people died there that night. I was there working, in Ward G on the sixth floor. In addition to those who died, many were injured, but I went all through it and I didn't get a scratch or any burn. My dearest friend was killed, burned to death trying to save the patients, and another dear friend is crippled for life, and a young doctor I was engaged to marry -- he was killed in the explosion, and others I knew. I don't know how I came out of it without a mark, because I'm sure I tried to help. I'm positively sure of that, but I did, and that's one trouble, I guess, because I couldn't be glad about it -- how could I?"

She seemed to expect an answer, so Wolfe muttered, "No. Not to be expected."

"I am not," she said, "the kind of person who hates people."

She stopped, so Wolfe said, "No?"

"No, I'm not. I never have been. But I began to hate the man -- or if it was a woman, I don't care which - that put the bomb there and did it. I can't say I went out of my mind because I don't think I did, but that's how I felt. After two weeks I tried to go back to work at another hospital, but I couldn't. I read all there was in the newspapers, hoping they would catch him, and I couldn't think of anything else, and I dreamed about it every night, and I went to the police and wanted to help, but of course they had already questioned me and I had told everything I knew. The days went by, and it looked as if they never would catch him, and I wanted to do something, and I had read about that Leo Heller, and I decided to go to him and get him to do it."

Wolfe made a noise and her head jerked up. "I said I hated him!"

Wolfe nodded. "So you did. Go on."

"And I went, that's all. I had some money saved, and I could borrow some, to pay him. But while I was sitting there in the waiting room, with that man and woman there, I suddenly thought I must be crazy, I must have got so bitter and vindictive I didn't realize what I was doing, and I wanted to think about it, and I got up and went. Going down in the elevator I felt as if a crisis had passed -- that's a feeling a nurse often has about other people -- and then as I left the elevator I heard the names Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe, and the idea came to me, why not get them to find him? So I spoke to Mr. Goodwin, and there I was again, but I couldn't make myself tell him about it, so I just told him I wanted to see Nero Wolfe to ask his advice, and he said he would try to arrange it, and he would phone me or I could phone him."

She fluttered a hand. "That's how it was."

Wolfe regarded her. "It's not incoherent, but neither is it sapient. Do you consider yourself an intelligent woman?"

"Why -- yes. Enough to get along. I'm a good nurse, and a good nurse has to be intelligent."

"Yet you thought that quack could expose the man who planted the bomb in the hospital by his hocus-pocus?"

"I thought he did it scientifically. I knew he had a great reputation, just as you have."

"Good heavens." Wolfe opened his eyes wide at her. "It is indeed a bubble, as Jacques said. What were you going to ask my advice about?"

"Whether you thought there was any chance -- whether you thought the police were going to find him."

Wolfe's eyes were back to normal, half shut again. "This performance I'm engaged in, Miss Maturo -- this inquisition of a person involved by circumstance in a murder -- is a hubbub in a jungle, at least in its preliminary stage. Blind, I grope, and proceed by feel. You say you never saw Mr. Heller, but you can't prove it. I am free to assume that you had seen him, not at his office, and talked with him; that you were convinced, no matter how, that he had planted the bomb in the hospital and caused the holocaust; and that, moved by an obsessive rancor, you went to his place and killed him. One ad --"

She was gawking. "Why on earth would I think he had planted the bomb?"

"I have no idea. As I said, I'm groping. One advantage of that assumption would be that you have confessed to a hatred so overpowering that surely it might have impelled, you to kill if and when you identified its object. It is Mr. Cramer, not I, who is deploying the hosts of justice in this enterprise, but no doubt two or three men are calling on your friends and acquaintances to learn if you have ever hinted a suspicion of Leo Heller in connection with the hospital disaster. Also they are probably asking whether you had any grudge against the hospital that might have provoked you to plant the bomb yourself."

"My God!" A muscle at the side of her neck was twitching. "Me? Is that what it's like?"

"It is indeed. That wouldn't be incongruous. Your proclaimed abhorrence of the perpetrator could be simply the screeching of your remorse."

"Well, it isn't." Suddenly she was out of her chair, and a bound took her to Wolfe's desk, and her palms did a tattoo on the desk as she leaned forward at him. "Don't you dare say a thing like that! The six people I cared for most in the world -- they all died that night! How would you feel?" More tattoo. "How would anybody feel?"

I was up and at her elbow, but no bodily discipline was required. She straightened and for a moment stood trembling all over, then got her control back and went to her chair and sat. "I'm sorry," she said in a tight little voice.

"You should be," Wolfe said grimly, A woman cutting loose is always too much for him. "Pounding the top of my desk settles nothing. What were the names of the six people you cared for most in the world, who died?"

She told him, and he wanted to know more about them. I was beginning to suspect that actually he had no more of a lead than I did, that he had given Cramer a runaround to jostle him loose from the NW he had fixed on, and that, having impulsively impounded the five hundred bucks, he had decided to spend the night trying to earn it. The line he now took with Susan Maturo bore me out. It was merely the old grab-bag game -- keep her talking, about anything and anybody, in the hope that she would spill something that would faintly resemble a straw. I had known Wolfe, when the pickings had been extremely slim, to play that game for hours on end.

He was still at it with Susan Maturo when an individual entered with a message for Cramer which he delivered in a whisper. Cramer got up and started for the door, then thought better of it and turned.

"You might as well be in on this," he told Wolfe. "They've got Mrs. Tillotson, and she's here."

That was a break for Susan Maturo, since Wolfe might have kept her going another hour or so, though I suppose all it got her was an escort to some lieutenant or sergeant in another room, who started at her all over again. As she arose to go she favored me with a glance. It looked as if she intended it for a smile to show there were no hard feelings, but if so it was the poorest excuse for a smile I had ever seen. If it hadn't been unprofessional I would have gone and given her a pat on the shoulder.

The newcomer who was ushered in was not Mrs. Tillotson but an officer of the law, not in uniform. He was one of the newer acquisitions on Homicide, and I had never seen him before, but I admired his manly stride as he approached and his snappy stance when he halted and faced Cramer, waiting to be spoken to.

"Who did you leave over there?" Cramer asked him.

"Murphy, sir. Timothy Murphy."

"Okay. You tell it. Hold it." Cramer turned to Wolfe. "This man's name is Roca. He was on post at Heller's place. It was him you asked about the pencils and the eraser. Go on, Roca."

"Yes, sir. The doorman in the lobby phoned up that there was a woman down there that wanted to come up, and I told him to let her come. I thought that was compatible."

"You did."

"Yes, sir."

"Then go ahead."

"She came up in the elevator. She wouldn't tell me her name. She asked me questions about how much longer would be there and did I expect anybody else to come, and so on. We bantered back and forth, my objective being to find out who she was, and then she came right out with it. She took a roll of bills from her bag. She offered me three hundred dollars, and then four hundred, and finally five hundred, if I would unlock the cabinets in Heller's office and let her be in there alone for an hour. That put me in a quandary."

"It did."

"Yes, sir."

"How did you get out?"

"If I had had keys to the cabinets I would have accepted her offer. I would have unlocked them and left her in there. When she was ready to go I would have arrested her and taken her to be searched, and we would have known what she had taken from the cabinet. That would have broken the case. But I had no keys to the cabinets."

"Uh-huh. If you had had keys and had unlocked the cabinets and left her in there, and she had taken something from a cabinet and burned it up, you would have collected the ashes and sent them to the laboratory for examination by modern scientific methods."

Roca swallowed. "I admit I didn't think about burning. But if I had had keys I would have thought harder."

"I bet you would. Did you take her money for evidence?"

"No, sir. I thought that might be instigation. I took her into custody. I phoned in. When a relief came, I brought her here to you. I am staying here to face her."

"You've faced her enough for tonight. Plenty. We'll have a talk later. Go and tell Burger to bring her in."

Chapter 5

Although my stay in Heller's waiting room that morning had been brief, I have long been trained to see what I look at and to remember what I see, and I would hardly have recognized Mrs. Albert Tillotson. She had lost five pounds and gained twice that many wrinkles, and the contrast between her lipstick and her drained-out skin made her look more like a woman-hater's pin-up than an overfed matron.

"I wish to speak with you privately," she told Inspector Cramer.

She was one of those. Her husband was president of something, and therefore it was absurd to suppose that she was not to expect privileges. It took Cramer a good five minutes to get it into her head that she was just one of the girls, and it was such a shock that she had to take time out to decide how to react to it.

She decided on a barefaced lie. She demanded to know if the man who had brought her there was a member of the police force, and Cramer replied that he was.

"Well," she declared, "he shouldn't be. You may know that late this afternoon a police officer called at my residence to see me. He told me that Leo Heller had been killed, murdered, and wanted to know for what purpose I had gone to his office this morning. Naturally I didn't want to be involved in an ugly thing like that, so I told him I hadn't gone to see Leo Heller, but he convinced me that that wouldn't do, so I said I had gone to see him, but on an intimate personal matter that I wouldn't tell -- Is that man putting down what I'm saying?"

"Yes. That's his job."

"I wouldn't want it. Nor yours either. The officer insisted that I must tell why I had gone to see that Heller, and I refused, and he insisted, and I refused. When he said he would have to take me to the district attorney's office, under arrest if necessary, and I saw that he meant it, I told him. I told him that my husband and I have been having some difficulty with our son, especially his schooling, and I went to Heller to ask what college would be best for him. I answered the officer's questions, within reason, and finally he left, Perhaps you knew all this."

Cramer nodded. "Yes."

"Well, after the officer had gone I began to worry, and I went to see a friend and ask her advice. The trouble was that I had given Heller many details about my son, some of them very intimate and confidential, and since he had been murdered the police would probably go through all his papers, and those details were private and I wanted to keep them private. I knew that Heller had made all his notes in a personal shorthand that no one else could read -- anyhow he had said so, but I couldn't be sure, and it was very important. After I had discussed it with my friend a long time, for hours, I decided to go to Heller's place and ask whoever was in charge to let me have any papers relating to my family affairs, since they were not connected with the murder."

"I see," Cramer assured her.

"And that's what I did. And the officer there pretended to listen to me, he pretended to be agreeing with me, and then suddenly he arrested me for trying to bribe an officer; and when I indignantly denied it, as of course I did, and started to leave, he detained me by force, and he actually was going to put handcuffs on me! So I came with him, and here I am, and I hope you realize I have a complaint to make and I am making it!"

Cramer was eying her. "Did you try to bribe him?"

"No, I didn't!"

"You didn't offer him money?"


Purley Stebbins permitted a low sound; half growl and half snort, to escape him. Cramer, ignoring that impertinence from a subordinate, took a deep breath and let it out again.

"Shall I take it?" Wolfe inquired.

"No, thank you," Cramer said acidly. He was keeping his eyes at Mrs. Tillotson. "You're making a mistake, madam," he told her. "All these lies don't do you any good. They just make it harder for you. Try telling the truth for a change."

She drew herself up, but it wasn't very impressive because she was pretty well fagged after her hard day. "You're calling me a liar," she accused Cramer, "and in front of witnesses." She pointed a finger at the police stenographer. "You get that down just the way he said it!"

"He will," Cramer assured her. "Look, Mrs. Tillotson. You admit you lied about going to see Heller until you saw it wouldn't work, when you realized that the doorman would swear that you were there not only this morning but also previously. Now about your trying to bribe an officer. That's a felony. If we charge you with it, and you go to trial, I can't say who the jury will believe, you or the officer, but I know who I believe. I believe him, and you're lying about it."

"Get him in here," she challenged. "I want to face him."

"He wants to face you too, but that wouldn't help any. I'm satisfied that you're lying, and also that you're lying about what you wanted to get from Heller's files. He made his notes in a private code that it will take a squad of experts to decipher, and you knew that, and I do not believe that you took the risk of going there and trying to bribe an officer just to get his notes about you and your family. I believe there is some thing in his files that can easily be recognized as pertaining to you or your family,' and that's what you were after. In the morning we'll have men going through the contents of the files, item by item, and if anything like that is there they'll spot it.' Meanwhile I'm holding you for further questioning about your attempt to bribe an officer. If you want to telephone a lawyer, you may -- one phone call, with an officer present."

Cramer's head swiveled. "Stebbins, take her in to Lieutenant Rowcliff, and tell Rowcliff how it stands."

Purley arose. Mrs. Tillotson was shrinking, looking less overfed every second, right in front of our eyes. "Will you wait a minute?" she demanded.

"Two minutes, madam. But don't try cooking up any more lies. You're no good at it."

"That man misunderstood me. I wasn't trying to bribe him."

"I said you may phone a lawyer --"

"I don't want a lawyer." She was sure about that. "If they go through those files they'll find what I was after, so I might as well tell you. It's some letters in envelopes addressed to me. They're not signed, they're anonymous, and I wanted that Heller to find out who sent them."

"Are they about your son?"

"No. They're about me. They threaten me with something, and I was sure it was leading up to blackmail."

"How many letters?"


"What do they threaten you with?"

"They -- they don't exactly threaten. They're quotations from things. One of them says, 'He that cannot pay, let him pray.' Another one says, 'He that dies pays all debts.' Another one says, 'So comes a reckoning when the banquet's o'er.' The others are longer, but that's what they're like."

"What made you think they were leading up to blackmail?"

"Wouldn't you? 'He that cannot pay, let him pray.' "

"And you wanted Heller to identify" the sender. How many times had you seen him?"


"Of course you had given him all the information you could. We'll get the letters in the morning, but you can tell us now what you told Heller. As far as possible, everything that was said by both of you."

I permitted myself to grin, not discreetly, and glanced at Wolfe to see if he was properly appreciative of Cramer's adopting his approach, but he was just sitting there looking patient.

It was hard to tell, for me at least, how much Mrs. Tillotson was giving and how much she was covering. If there was something in her past that someone might have felt she should pay for or give a reckoning of, either she didn't know what it was, or she had kept it from Heller, or she had told him but certainly didn't intend to let us in on it. It went on and on, with her concentrating hard on remembering her conversations with Heller and all the data she had given him for factors of his formulas, and with Cramer playing her back and forth until she was so tied up in contradictions that it would have taken a dozen mathematical wizards to make head or tail of it.

Wolfe finally intervened. He glanced up at the wall clock, shifted in his chair to get his seventh of a ton bearing on another spot, and announced, "It's after midnight. Thank heaven you have an army to start sorting this out and checking it. If your Lieutenant Rowcliff is still here, let him have her, and let's have some cheese. I'm hungry."

Cramer, as ready for a recess as anybody, had no objection. Purley Stebbins removed Mrs. Tillotson. The stenographer went on a private errand. I went to the kitchen to give Fritz a hand, knowing that he was running himself ragged furnishing trays of sandwiches to flocks of Homicide personnel distributed all over the premises. When I returned to the office with a supply of provender, Cramer was riding Wolfe, pouring it on, and Wolfe was leaning back in his chair with his eyes shut. I passed around plates of Fritz's il pesto and crackers, with beer for Wolfe and the stenographer, coffee for Cramer and Stebbins, and milk for me.

In four minutes Cramer inquired, "What is this stuff?"

Wolfe told him. "Il pesto."

"What's in it?"

"Canestrato cheese, anchovies, pig liver, black walnuts, chives, sweet basil, garlic, and olive oil."br />
"Good God."

In another four minutes Cramer addressed me in the tone of one doing a gracious favor. "I'll take some more of that, Goodwin."

But while I was gathering the empty plates he started in on Wolfe again. Wolfe didn't bother to counter. He waited until Cramer halted for breath and then growled, "It's nearly one o'clock, and we have three more."

Cramer sent Purley for another scared citizen. This time it was the thin tall bony specimen who, entering the lobby on Thirty-seventh Street that morning, had stopped to aim a rude stare at Susan Mature and me seated on the bench by the fireplace. Having read his statement, I now knew that his name was Jack Ennis, that he was an expert diemaker, at present unemployed, that he was unmarried, that he lived in Queens, and that he was a born inventor who had not yet cashed in. His brown suit had not been pressed.

When Cramer told him that questions from Wolfe were to be considered a part of the official inquiry into Leo Heller's death, Ennis cocked his head to appraise Wolfe, as if deciding whether or not such a procedure deserved his okay.

"You're a self-made man," he told Wolfe. "I've read about you. How old are you?"

Wolfe returned his gaze. "Some other time, Mr. Ennis. Tonight you're the target, not me. You're thirty-eight, aren't you?"

Ennis smiled. He had a wide mouth with thin colorless lips, and his smile wasn't especially attractive. "Excuse me if you thought I was being fresh, asking how old you are, but I don't really give a damn. I know you're right at the top of your racket, and I wondered how long it took you to get started up. I'm going to the top too, before I'm through, but it's taking me a hell of a time to get a start, and I wondered about you. How old were you when you first got your name in the paper?"

"Two days. A notice of my birth. I understand that your call on Leo Heller was connected with your determination to get a start as an inventor?"

"That's right." Ennis smiled again. "Look. This is all a lot of crap. The cops have been at me now for seven hours, and where are they? What's the sense in going on with it? Why in the name of God would I want to kill that guy?"

"That's what I'd like to know."

"Well, search me. I've got patents on six inventions, and none of them is on the market. One of them is not perfect - I know damn well it's not - but it needs only one more trick to make it an absolute whiz. I can't find the trick. I've read about this Heller, and it seemed to me that if I gave him all the dope, all the stuff he needed for one of his formulas, there was a good chance he would come up with the answer. So I went to him. I spent three long sessions with him. He finally thought he had enough to try to work up a formula, and he was taking a crack at it, and I had a date to see him this morning and find out how it was going."

Ennis stopped for emphasis. "So I'm hoping. After all the sweating I've done and the dough I've spent, maybe I'm going to get it at last. So I go. I go upstairs to his office and shoot him dead, and then I go to the waiting room and sit down and wait." He smiled. "Listen. If you want to say there are smarter men than me, I won't argue. Maybe you're smarter yourself. But I'm not a lunatic, am I?"

Wolfe's lips were pursed. "I won't commit myself on that, Mr. Ennis. But you have by no means demonstrated that it is fatuous to suppose you might have killed Heller. What if he devised a formula from the data you supplied, discovered the trick that would transform your faulty contraption into a whiz, as you expressed it, and refused to divulge it except on intolerable terms? That would be a magnificent motive for murder."

"It sure would," Ennis agreed without reservation. "I would have killed him with pleasure." He leaned forward and was suddenly intense and in dead earnest. "Look. I'm headed for the top. I've got what I need in here" -- he tapped his forehead -- "and nothing and nobody is going to stop me. If Heller had done what you said, I might have killed him, I don't deny it; but he didn't." He jerked to Cramer. "And I'm glad of a chance to tell you what I've told those bozos that have been grilling me. I want to go through Heller's papers to see if I can find the formula he worked up for me. Maybe I can't recognize it, and if I do I doubt if I can figure it out, but I want to look for it, and not next year either."

"We're doing the looking," Cramer said dryly. "If we find anything that can be identified as relating to you, you'll see it, and eventually you may get it."

"I don't want it eventually, I want it now. Do you know how long I've been working on that thing? Four years! It's mine, you understand that, it's mine!" He was getting, upset.

"Calm down, bud," Cramer advised him.

"We're right with you in seeing to it that you get what's yours."

"Meanwhile," Wolfe said, "there's a point or two. When you entered that building this morning, why did you stop and gape at Mr. Goodwin and Miss Maturo?"

Ennis's chin went up. "Who says I did?"

"I do, on information. Archie. Did he?"

"Yes," I stated. "Rudely."

"Well," Ennis told Wolfe, "he's bigger than I am. Maybe I did, at that."

"Why? Any special reason?"

"It depends on what you call special. I thought I recognized her, a girl I knew once, and then saw I was wrong. She was much too young."

"Very well. I would like to explore my suggestion, which you reject, that Heller was trying to chouse you out of your invention as perfected by his calculations. I want you to describe the invention as you described it to him, particularly the flaw which you had tried so persistently to rectify."

I won't attempt to report what followed, and I couldn't anyhow, since I understood less than a tenth of it. I did gather that the invention was a gadget intended to supersede all existing X-ray machines, but beyond that I got lost in a wilderness of cathodes and atomicity and coulombs, and if you ask me, Wolfe and Cramer were no better off. If talking like a character out of space-science fiction proves you're an inventor, that bird was certainly one. He stood up to make motions to illustrate, and grabbed a pad and pencil from Wolfe's desk to explain with drawings, and after a while it began to look as if it would be impossible to stop him. They finally managed it, with Sergeant Stebbins lending a hand by marching over and taking his elbow. On his way out he turned at the door to call back, "I want that formula, and don't you forget it!"

Chapter 6

The female of an executive type was still in mink, or rather she had it with her, but she was not so brisk. As I said before, that morning I would have classified her as between twenty and sixty, but the day's experiences had worn her down closer to reality, and I would now have put her at forty-seven. However, she was game. With all she had gone through, at that late hour she still let us know, as she deposited the mink on a chair, sat on another, crossed her legs, got out a cigarette and let me light it, and thanked me for an ashtray, that she was cool and composed and in command.

My typing her as an executive had been justified by the transcripts. Her name really was Agatha Abbey, and she was executive editor of a magazine, Mode, which I did not read regularly. After Cramer had explained the nature of the session, including Wolfe's status, Wolfe took aim and went for the center of the target.

"Miss Abbey. I presume you'd like to get to bed -- I know I would -- so we won't waste time flouncing around. Three things about you." He held up a finger. "First. You claim that you never saw Leo Heller. It is corroborated that you had not visited his place before today, but whether you had seen him elsewhere will be thoroughly investigated by men armed with pictures of him. They will ask people at your place of business, at your residence, and at other likely spots. If it is found that you had in fact met him and conferred with him, you won't like it."

He raised two fingers. "Second. You refused to tell why you went to see Heller. That does not brand you as a miscreant, since most people have private matters which they innocently and jealously guard, but you clung to your refusal beyond reason, even after it was explained that that information had to be given by all of the six persons who called on Heller this morning, and you were assured that it would be revealed to no one unless it proved to be an item of evidence in a murder case. You finally did give the information, but only when you perceived that if you didn't there would be a painstaking investigation into your affairs and movements."

He raised three fingers. "Third. When the information was wormed out of you, it was almost certainly flummery. You said that you wanted to engage Heller to find out who had stolen a ring from a drawer of your desk some three months ago. That was childish nonsense. I grant that even though the ring was insured you may have been intent on disclosing the culprit, and the police had failed you; but if you have enough sense to get and hold a well-paid job in highly competitive field, as you have, surely, you would have known that it was stupid to suppose Heller could help you. Even if were not a humbug, if he were honestly applying the laws of probability to complex problems with some success, singling out sneak thief from among a hundred possibilities was plainly an operation utterly unsuited to his technique, and even to his pretensions."

Wolfe moved his head an inch to the left and back again. "No, Miss Abbey, it won't do. I want to know whether you saw Leo Heller before today, and in any case what you wanted of him."

The tip of her tongue had appeared four times, to flick across her lips. She spoke in a controlled, thin, steely voice. "You make it sound overwhelming, Mr. Wolfe."

"Not I. It is overwhelming."

Her sharp dark eyes went to Cramer. "You're an inspector, in charge of this business?"

"That's right."

"Do the police share Mr. Wolfe's -- skepticism?"

"You can take what he said as coming from me."

"Then no matter what I tell you about why I went to see Heller, you'll investigate it? You'll check it?"

"Not necessarily. If it fits all right, and if we can't connect it with the murder, and if it's a private confidential matter, we'll let it go at that. If we do check any, we'll be careful. There are enough innocent citizens sore at us already."

Her eyes darted back to Wolfe. "What about you, Mr. Wolfe? Will you have to check?"

"I sincerely hope not. Let Mr. Cramer's assurance include me."

Her eyes went around. "What about these men?"

"They are trained confidential assistants. They hold their tongues or they lose their jobs."

The tip of her tongue came out and went in. "I'm not satisfied, but what can I do? If my only choice is between this and the whole New York detective force pawing at me, the Lord knows I take this. I phoned Leo Heller ten days ago, and he came to my office and spent two hours there. It was a business matter, not a personal one. I'm going to tell you exactly what it was, because I'm no good at ad libbing a phony. I was a damn fool to say that about the stolen ring."

She was hating it, but she went on. "You said I have sense enough to get and hold a well-paid job in a highly competitive field, but if you only knew. It's not a field, it's a corral of wild beasts. There are six female tigers trying to get their claws on my job right now, and if they all died tonight there would be six others tomorrow. If it came out what I went to Leo Heller for, that would be the finish of me."

The tip of her tongue flashed out and in.

"So that's what this means to me. A magazine like Mode has two main functions, re porting and predicting. American women want to know what is being made and worn in Paris and New York, but even more they want to know what is going to be made and worn next season. Mode's reporting has been good enough -- I've been all right on that -- but for the past year our predictions have been utterly rotten. We've got the contacts, but something has gone haywire, and our biggest rival has made monkeys of us. An other year like that, even another season, and good-by."

Wolfe grunted. "To the magazine?"

"No, to me. So I decided to try Leo Heller. We had carried a piece about him, and I had met him. The idea was to give him everything we had -- and we had plenty -- about styles and colors and trends for the past ten years, and have him figure the probabilities six months ahead. He thought it was feasible, and I don't think he was a faker. He had to come to the office to go through our stuff, and of course I had to camouflage it, what he was there for, but that wasn't hard. Do you want to know what I told them he was doing?"

"I think not," Wolfe muttered.

"So he came. I phoned him the next day, and he said it would take him at least a week to determine whether he had enough information to make up a probability formula. Yesterday I phoned again, and he said he had something to discuss and asked me to call at his place this morning. I went. You know the rest of it."

She stopped. Wolfe and Cramer exchanged glances. "I would like," Wolfe said, "to have the name of the six female tigers who are after your job."

She turned white. I have never seen the color leave a face faster or more completely.

"Damn you, she said in bitter fury, "So you're a rat like everybody else!"

Wolfe showed her a palm. "Please, madam. Mr. Cramer will speak for himself, but I have no desire to betray you to your enemies. I merely want --"

He saved his breath, because his audience was leaving. She got up, retrieved her mink from the other chair, draped it over her arm, turned, and headed for the door. Stebbins looked at Wolfe, Wolfe shook his head, and Stebbins trailed after her.

As he left the room at her heels, Cramer called to him, "Bring Busch!" Then he turned on Wolfe to protest. "What the hell, you had her open. Why give her a breath?"

Wolfe made a face. "The wretch. The miserable wretch. Her misogyny was already in her bones; now her misandry is too. She was dumb with rage, and it would have been futile to keep at her. But you're keeping her?"

"You're right we are. For what?" He was out of his chair, glaring down at Wolfe. "Tell me for what! Except for dragging that out of that woman, there's not one single . . ."

He was off again. I miss no opportunity of resenting Inspector Cramer -- I enjoy it, and it's good for my appetite -- but I must admit that on that occasion he seemed to me to have a point. I still had seen or heard no indication whatever that Wolfe's statement that he had a lead was anything but a stall, and it was half-past two in the morning, and five of them had been processed, with only one to go. So as Cramer yapped at my employer I did not cheer him on or offer him an orchid, but I had a private feeling that some of the sentiments he expressed were not positively preposterous. He was still at it when the door opened to admit Stebbins with the sixth customer.

The sergeant, after conducting this one to the seat the others had occupied facing Wolfe and Cramer, did not go to the chair against the wall, which he had favored throughout the evening. Instead, he lowered his bulk onto one at Cramer's left, only two arms' lengths from the subject. That was interesting because it meant that he was voting for Karl Busch as his pick of the lot, and while Stebbins had often been wrong I had known him, more than once, to be right.

Karl Busch was the slick, sly, swarthy little article with his hair pasted to his scalp. In the specifications on his transcript I had noted the key NVMS, meaning No Visible Means ot Support, but that was just a nod to routine. The details of the report on him left no real doubt as to the sources he tapped for jack. He was a Broadway smoothie, third grade. He was not in the theater or sports or the flicks or any of the tough rackets, but he knew everyone who was, and as the engraved lettuce swirled around the midtown corners and got trapped in the nets of the collectors, legitimate and otherwise, he had a hundred little dodges for fastening onto a specimen for himself.

To him Cramer's tone was noticeably different. "This is Nero Wolfe," he rasped. "Answer his questions. You hear, Busch?"

Busch said he did. Wolfe, who was frowning, studying him, spoke. "Nothing is to be gained, Mr. Busch, by my starting the usual rigmarole with you. I've read your statement, and I doubt if it would be worth while to try to pester you into a contradiction. But you had three conversations with Leo Heifer, and in your statement they are not reported, merely summarized. I want the details of those conversations, as completely as your memory will furnish. Start with the first one, two months ago. Exactly what was said?"

Busch slowly shook his head. "Impossible, mister."

"Word by word, no. Do your best."


"You won't try?"

"It's this way. If I took you to the pier and ask you to try to jump across to Brooklyn, what would you do? You'd say it was impossible and why get your feet wet. That's me."

"I told you," Cramer snapped, "to answer his questions."

Busch extended a dramatic hand in appeal. "What do you want me to do, make it up?"

"I want you to do what you were told, to the best of your ability."

"Okay. This will be good. I said to him, 'Mr. Heller, my name's Busch, and I'm a broker.' He said broker of what, and I said of anything people want broken, just for a gag, but he had no sense of humor and I saw he didn't, so I dropped that and explained, I told him there was a great demand among all kinds of people to know what horse was going to win a race the day before the race was run or even an hour before, and I had read about his line of work and was thinking that he could help to meet that demand. He said that he had thought several times about using his method on horse races, but he didn't care himself to use the method for personal bets because he wasn't a betting man, and for him to make up one of his formulas for just one race would take an awful lot of research and it would cost so much it wouldn't be worth it for any one person unless that person made a high-bracket plunge."

"You're paraphrasing it," Wolfe objected. "I'd prefer the words that were used."

"This is the best of my ability, mister."

"Very well. Go on."

"I said I wasn't a high-bracket boy myself, but anyway that wasn't here or there or under the rug, because what I had in mind was a wholesale setup. I had figures to show him. Say he did ten races a week. I could round up at least twenty customers right off the bat. He didn't need to be any God Almighty always right; all he had to do was crack a percentage of forty or better, and it would start a fire you couldn't put out if you ran a river down it. We could have a million customers if we wanted 'em, but we wouldn't want 'em. We would hand-pick a hundred and no more, and each one would ante one C per week, which if I can add at all would make ten grand every sennight. That would --"

"What?" Wolfe exploded. "Ten grand every what?"


"Meaning a week?"


"Where the deuce did you pick up that fine old word?"

"That's not old. Some big wit started it around last summer."

"Incredible. Go on."

"Where was -- Oh, yeah. That would make half a million little ones per year, and Heller and me would split it. Out of my half I would expense the operating, and out of his half he would expense the dope. He would have to walk on his nose to cut under a hundred grand all clear, and I wouldn't do so bad. We didn't sign no papers, but he could smell it, and after two more talks he agreed to do a dry run on three races. The first one he worked on, his answer was the favorite, a horse named White Water, and it won, but what the hell, it was just exercise for that rabbit. The next one, there were two sweethearts in a field of nine, and it was heads or tails between those two, and Heller had the winner all right, a horse named Short Order, but on a fifty-fifty call you don't exactly panic. But get this next one."

Busch gestured dramatically for emphasis. "Now get it. This animal was forty to one, but it might as well have been four hundred. It was a musclebound sore-jointed hyena named Zero. That alone, a horse named Zero, was enough to put the curse of six saints on it, but also it was the kind of looking horse which if you looked at it would make you think promptly of canned dog food. When Heller came up with that horse, I thought oh-oh, he's a loon after all, and watch me run. Well, you ast me to tell you the words we used, me and Heller. If I told you some I used when that Zero horse won that race, you would lock me up. Not only was Heller batting a thousand, but he had kicked through with the most -- What are you doing, taking a nap?"

We all looked at Wolfe. He was leaning back with his eyes shut tight, and was motionless except for his lips, which were pushing out and in, and out and in, and again out and in. Cramer and Stebbins and I knew what that meant: something had hit his hook, and he had yanked and had a fish on. A tingle ran up my spine. Stebbins arose and took a step to stand at Busch's elbow.

Cramer tried to look cynical but couldn't make it; he was as excited as I was. The proof of it was that he didn't open his trap; he just sat with his eyes on Wolfe, along with the rest of us, looking at the up movements as if they were something really special.

"What the hell!" Busch protested. "Is he having a fit?"

Wolfe's eyes opened, and he came forward in his chair. "No, I'm not," he snapped, "but I've been having one all evening. Mr. Cramer. Will you please have Mr. Busch removed? Temporarily."

Cramer, with no hesitation, nodded at Purley, and Purley touched Busch's shoulder, and they went. The door closed behind them, but it wasn't more than five seconds before it opened again and Purley was back with us. He wanted as quick a look at the fish as his boss and me.

"Have you ever," Wolfe was asking Cramer, "called me, pointblank, a dolt and a dotard?"

"Those aren't my words, but I've certainly called you."

"You may do so now. Your opinion of me at its lowest was far above my present opinion of myself." He looked up at the clock, which said five past three. "We now need a proper setting. How many of your staff are in my house?"

"Fourteen or fifteen."

"We want them all in here, for the effect of their presence. Half of them should bring chairs. Also, of course, the six persons we have interviewed. This shouldn't take too long -- possibly an hour, though I doubt it. I certainly won't prolong it."

Cramer was looking contrary. "You've already prolonged it plenty. You mean you're prepared to name him?"

"I am not. I haven't the slightest notion who it is. But I am prepared to make an attack that will expose him -- or her -- and if it doesn't, I'll have no opinion of myself at all." Wolfe flattened his palms on his desk, for him a violent gesture. "Confound it, don't you know me well enough to realize when I'm ready to strike?"

"I know you too damn well." Cramer looked at his sergeant, drew in a deep breath, and let it out. "Oh, nuts. Okay, Purley. Collect the audience."

Chapter 7

The office is a good-sized room, but there wasn't much unoccupied space left when that gathering was fully assembled. There were twenty-seven of us all told. The biggest assortment of Homicide employees I had ever gazed upon extended from wall to wall in the rear of the six subjects, with four of them filling the couch. Cramer was planted in the red leather chair, with Stebbins on his left, and the stenographer was hanging on at the end of my desk.

The six citizens were in a row up front, and none of them looked merry. Agatha Abbey was the only person present who rated two chairs, one for herself and one for her mink, but no one was bothering to resent it in spite of the crowding. Their minds were on other matters.

Wolfe's eyes went from right to left and back again, taking them in. He spoke. "I'll have to make this somewhat elaborate, so that all of you will clearly understand the situation. I could not at the moment hazard even a venturesome guess as to which of you killed Leo Heller, but I now know how to find out, and I propose to do so."

The only reaction visible or audible was John R. Winslow clearing his throat.

Wolfe interlaced his fingers in front of his middle mound. "We have from the first had a hint that has not been imparted to you. Yesterday -- Tuesday, that is -- Heller telephoned here to say that he suspected that one of his clients had committed a serious crime and to hire me to investigate. I declined for reasons we needn't go into, but Mr. Goodwin, who is subordinate only when it suits his temperament and convenience, took it upon himself to call on Heller this morning to discuss the matter."

He shot me a glance, and I met it. Merely an incivility. He went on to them, "He entered Heller's office but found it unoccupied. Tarrying there for some minutes, and meanwhile exercising his highly trained talent for observation, he noticed, among other details, that some pencils and an eraser from an overturned jar were arranged on the desk in a sort of pattern. Later that same detail was of course noted by the police, after Heller's body had been found and they had been summoned; and it was a feature of that detail which led Mr. Cramer to come to see me. He assumed that Heller, seated at his desk and threatened with a gun, knowing or thinking he was about to die, had made the pencil pattern to leave a message, and that the purpose of the message was to give a clue to the identity of the murderer. On that point I agreed with Mr. Cramer. Will you all approach, please, and look at this arrangement on my desk? These pencils and the eraser are placed approximately the same as those on Heller's desk, with you, not me, on Heller's side of the desk. From your side you are seeing them as Heller intended them to be seen,"

The six did as requested, and they had company. Not only did most of the homicide subordinates leave their chairs and come forward for a view, but Cramer himself got up and took a glance -- maybe just curiosity, but I wouldn't put it past him to suspect Wolfe of a shenanigan. However, the pencils and eraser were properly placed, as I ascertained by arising and stretching to peer over shoulders.

When, they were all seated again Wolfe resumed. "Mr. Cramer had a notion about the message which I rejected and will not bother to expound. My own notion of it, conceived almost immediately, came not as a coup d'eclat, but merely a stirring of memory. It reminded me vaguely of something I had seen somewhere; and the vagueness disappeared when I reflected that Heller had been a mathematician, academically qualified and trained. The memory was old, and I checked it by going to my shelves for a book I had read some ten years ago. Its title is Mathematics for the Million, by Hogben. After verifying my recollection, I locked the book in a drawer because I thought it would be a pity for Mr. Cramer to waste time leafing through it."

"Let's get on," Cramer growled.

Wolfe did so. "As told in Mr. Hogben's book, more than two thousand years ago what he calls a matchstick number script was being used in India. Three horizontal lines stood for three, two horizontal lines stood for two, and so on. That was indeed primitive, but it had greater possibilities than the clumsy devices of the Hebrews and Greeks and Romans. Around the time of the birth of Christ some brilliant Hindu improved upon it by connecting the horizontal lines with diagonals, making the units unmistakable." He pointed to the arrangement on his desk. "These five pencils on your left form a three exactly as the Hindus formed a three, and the three pencils on your right form a two. These Hindu symbols are one of the great landmarks in the history of number language. You will note, by the way, that our own forms of the figure three and of the figure two are taken directly from these Hindu symbols."

A couple of them got up to look, and Wolfe politely waited until they were seated again. "So, since Heller had been a mathematician, and since those were famous patterns in the history of mathematics, I assumed that the message was a three and a two. But evidence indicated that the eraser was also a part of the message and must be included. That was simple. It is the custom of an academic mathematician, if he wants to scribble 'four times six,' or 'seven times nine,' to use for the 'times' not an X, as we laymen do, but a dot. It is so well-known a custom that Mr. Hogben uses it in his book without thinking it necessary to explain it, and therefore I confidently assumed that the eraser was meant for a dot, and that the message was three times two, or six."

Wolfe compressed his lips and shook his head. "That was an impetuous imbecility. During the whole seven hours that I sat here poking at you people, I was trying to find some connection with the figure six that would either set one of you clearly apart, or relate you to the commission of some crime, or both. Preferably both, of course, but either would serve. In the interviews the figure six did turn up with persistent monotony, but with no promising application, and I could only ascribe it to the mischief of coincidence.

"So at three o'clock in the morning I was precisely where I had been when I started. Without a fortuitous nudge, I can't say how long it would have taken me to become aware of my egregious blunder; but I got the nudge, and I can at least say that I responded promptly and effectively. The nudge came from Mr. Busch when he mentioned the name of a horse, Zero."

He upturned a palm. "Of course. Zero! I had been a witless ass. The use of the dot as a symbol for 'times' is a strictly modern device. Since the rest of the message, the figures three and two, were in Hindu number script, surely the dot was too -- provided that the Hindus had made any use of the dot. And what made my blunder so unforgivable was that the Hindus had indeed used a dot; they had used it, as is explained in Hogben's book, for the most 76 brilliant and imaginative inventions in the whole history of the language of numbers. For when you have once decided how to write three and how to write two, how are you going to distinguish among thirty-two and three hundred and two and three thousand and two and thirty thousand and two? That was the crucial problem in number language, and the Greeks and Romans, for all their intellectual eminence, never succeeded in solving it. Some Hindu genius did, twenty centuries ago. He saw that the secret was position. Today we use our zero exactly as he did, to show position, but instead of a zero he used a dot. That's what the dot was in the early Hindu number language; it was used like our zero. So Heller's message was not three times two, or six; it was three zero two, or three hundred and two."

Susan Maturo started, jerking her head up, and made a noise. Wolfe rested his eyes on her. "Yes, Miss Maturo. Three hundred and two people died in the explosion and fire at the Montrose Hospital a month ago. You mentioned that figure when you were talking with me, but even if you hadn't, it is so imbedded in the consciousness of everyone who reads newspapers or listens to radio, it wouldn't have escaped me. The moment I realized that Heller's message was the figure three hundred and two, I would certainly have connected it with that disaster, whether you had mentioned it or not."

"But it's --" She was staring. "You mean it is connected?"

"I'm proceeding on that obvious assumption. I am assuming that through the information one of you six people furnished Leo Heller as factors for a formula, he formed a suspicion that one of you had committed a serious crime, and that his message, the figure three hundred and two, indicates that the crime was planting in the Montrose Hospital that bomb that caused the deaths of three hundred and two people -- or at least involvement in that crime."

It seemed as if I could see or feel muscles tightening all over the room. Most of those dicks, maybe all of them, had of course been working on the Montrose thing. Cramer pulled his feet back and his hands were fists. Purley Stebbins took his gun from his holster and rested it on his knee and leaned forward, the better to have his eyes on all six of them.

"So," Wolfe continued, "Heller's message identified not the person who was about to kill him, not the criminal, but the crime. That was superbly ingenious, and, considering the situation he was in, he deserves our deepest admiration. He has mine, and I retract any derogation of him. It would seem natural to concentrate on Miss Maturo, since she was certainly connected with that disaster, but first let's clarify the matter. I'm going to ask the rest of you if you have at any time visited the Montrose Hospital, or been connected with it in any way, or had dealings with any of its personnel. Take the question just as I have stated it." His eyes went to the end of the row, at the left. "Mrs. Tillotson? Answer, please. Have you?"

"No." It was barely audible.

"Louder, please."


His eyes moved. "Mr. Ennis?"

"I have not. Never."

"We'll skip you, Miss Maturo. Mr. Busch?"

"I've never been in a hospital."

"That answers only a third of the question. Answer all of it."

"The answer is no, mister."

"Miss Abbey?"

"I went there once about two years ago, to visit a patient, a friend. That was all." The tip of her tongue came out and went in. "Except for that one visit I have never been connected with it in any way or dealt with any of its personnel."

"That is explicit. Mr. Winslow?"

"No to the whole question. An unqualified no."

"Well." Wolfe did not look frustrated. "That would seem to isolate Miss Maturo, but it is not conclusive." His head turned. "Mr. Cramer. If the person who not only killed Leo Heller but also bombed that hospital is among these six, I'm sure you won't want to take the slightest risk of losing him. I have a suggestion."

"I'm listening," Cramer growled.

"Take them in as material witnesses, and hold them without bail if possible. Starting immediately, collect as many as you can of the former staff of that hospital. There were scores who survived, and other scores who were not on duty at the time. Get all of them if possible, spare no effort, and have them look at these people and say if they have ever seen any of them. Meanwhile, of course, you will be working on Miss Maturo, but you have heard the denials of the other five, and if you get reliable evidence that one of them has lied I'm sure you will need no further suggestion from me. Indeed, if one of them has lied and leaves this room in custody with that lie undeclared, that alone will be half the battle. I'm sorry --"

"Wait a minute."

All eyes went to one spot. It was Jack Ennis, the inventor. His thin colorless lips were twisted, with one end up, but not in an attempt to smile. The look in his eyes showed that he had no idea of smiling.

"I didn't tell an exact lie," he said.

Wolfe's eyes were slits. "Then an inexact lie, Mr. Ennis?"

"I mean I didn't visit that hospital as a hospital. And I didn't have dealings with them, I was just trying to. I wanted them to give my X-ray machine a trial. One of them was willing to, but the other two talked him down."

"When was this?"

"I was there three times, twice in December and once in January."

"I thought your X-ray machine had a flaw."

"It wasn't perfect, but it would work, and it would have been better than anything they had. I was sure I was going to get it in, because he was for it -- his name is Halsey -- and I saw him first, and he wanted to try it. But the other two talked him out of it, and one of them was very -- he --" He petered out.

Wolfe prodded him. "Very what, Mr. Ennis?"

"He didn't understand me! He hated me!"

"There are people like that. There are all kinds of people. Have you ever invented a bomb?"

"A bomb?" Ennis's lips worked, and this time I thought he actually was trying to smile. "Why would I invent a bomb?"

"I don't know. Inventors invent many things. If you have never tried your hand at a bomb, of course you have never had occasion to get hold of the necessary materials - for instance, explosives. It's only fair to tell you what I now regard as a reasonable hypothesis: that you placed the bomb in the hospital in revenge for an injury, real or fancied; that included in the data you gave Leo Heller was an item or items which led him to suspect you of that crime; that something he said led you, in turn, to suspect that he suspected; that when you went to his place this morning you went armed, prepared for action if your suspicion was verified; that when you entered the building you recognized Mr. Goodwin as my assistant; that you went up to Heller's office and asked him if Mr. Goodwin was there for an appointment with him, and his answer heightened or confirmed your suspicion, and you produced the gun; that --"

"Hold it," Cramer snapped. "Ill take it from here. Purley, get him out and --"

Purley was a little slow. He was up, but Ennis was up faster and off in a flying dive for Wolfe. I dived too, and got an arm and jerked. He tore loose, but by then a whole squad was there, swarming into him, and since I wasn't needed I backed off. As I did so someone dived at me, and Susan Maturo was up against me, gripping my lapels.

"Tell me!" she demanded. "Tell me! Was it him?"

I told her promptly and positively, to keep her from ripping my lapels off. "Yes," I said, in one word.

Two months later a jury of eight men and four women agreed with me.