A Right To Die (2 page)

Nero Wolfe 40 - A Right To Die

That was Monday, February 24. Forty-two hours later, at one o’clock Wednesday, I had lunch with Susan Brooke at Lily Rowan’s penthouse on 63rd Street between Madison and Park.

In the random assortment of facts Whipple had supplied there had been nothing to bite on. She had graduated from Radcliffe four or five years ago, and not long after had come to New York. She was living with her married brother, an electronics engineer, in his Park Avenue apartment, and so was her mother. They were from Wisconsin-Racine, Whipple thought, but wasn’t sure. He didn’t actually know that she was financially independent; he had assumed it, because for more than two years she had been working for the ROCC as a volunteer, no pay, and she had made cash contributions amounting to $2350. Not office work; she made contacts and arranged fund-raising parties and meetings.

That was about all Whipple knew, except for a couple of dozen useless little details and a few even more useless guesses.

The Lily Rowan idea was of course mine, since she was my friend, not Wolfe’s. My first suggestion, Monday evening after dinner, was that I would phone the ROCC office, speak with the executive director, Thomas Henchy, and tell him that Wolfe was considering making a substantial contribution, that he would like to discuss it, and that in my opinion the best person to see him would be Miss Susan Brooke because I had heard that she made a good impression with men. That was vetoed by Wolfe on the ground (a) that he would feel committed to a substantial contribution, at least a grand, and (b) that with an attractive young woman I would get farther sooner if he wasn’t present. Of course the real ground was that she was a woman. There are many things he likes about the old brownstone on West 35th Street, which he owns: the furniture and rugs and books and soundproofing; the plant rooms on the roof; Fritz Brenner, the chef; the big kitchen; Theodore Horstmann, the orchid nurse; and me, the man and the muscle. But what he likes best is that there is no woman in it, and it would suit him fine if one never crossed the doorsill.

So I suggested Lily Rowan, to whom a grand is peanuts, and that was satisfactory. When I rang her, that evening, she said she didn’t like to discuss dirty work on the phone so I had better come in person, and I went, and got back to 35th Street and to bed at a quarter past two. Since I take a full eight hours short of murder, I didn’t get to the office Tuesday morning until after Wolfe had come down from his two hours in the plant rooms-nine to eleven. Around noon Lily phoned. Miss Brooke would be there tomorrow for lunch at one o’clock, and I might come earlier for more briefing.

The two miles crosstown and up to 63rd Street is one of my favorite walks, but that Wednesday it took plenty of man and muscle. When it’s twenty above and at every corner a snowy blast that has been practicing ever since it left Hudson Bay lowers your chin and clamps your mouth shut and bends you nearly double, you have to grit your teeth to go on by all the handy doors to shops and bars and hotel lobbies. When I finally made it, shook the snow off of my coat and hat under the canopy and in the lobby, took the elevator and left it at the top and pushed the button, and Lily opened the door, I said, “The nearest bed.”

She raised a brow, a trick I taught her. “Try next door,” she said. She let me by and shut the door. “You didn’t walk!”

“Sure. You could call it walking.” I put my hat and coat in the closet. “If they walked up Everest, I walked here.”

We linked arms and entered the living room, with its 19-by-34 Kashan rug, a garden pattern in seven colors, its Renoir and Manet and Cezanne, its off-white piano, and its glass doors to the terrace, where the wind was giving the snow a big play. When we sat she poked her feet out, the shins parallel, and muttered, “Antelope legs.”

“In the first place,” I said, “that was many years ago. In the second place, what I said was that you looked like an antelope in a herd of Guernseys. In a crowd you still do. We will now discuss Miss Brooke, though she probably won’t make it in this weather.”

But she did, only ten minutes late. Lily let the maid admit her but met her at the arch to the foyer. I stood in the middle of the Kashan and was introduced as Mr. Goodwin, her business adviser.

The description that Whipple had given us of her had been biased. She wasn’t skinny. She was small, a couple of inches shorter than Lily, who came up to my nose, with smooth fair skin, brown hair and eyes, and hardly any lipstick on her wide full mouth. Her handshake was firm and friendly without overdoing it. Lily told me afterward that her brown woolen dress was probably Bergdorf, two hundred bucks. She didn’t want a cocktail.

I left it to Lily. At lunch-mushroom chowder, lobster souffle, avocado salad, pineapple mousse-she stuck to ROCC: people, record, policy, program. Susan Brooke knew it all and knew how to tell it. It was a good pitch for almost anybody this side of Governor Wallace or Senator Eastland.

The question whether Lily should give her a check or stall was for Lily to decide, but the further question, whether to give it to her before getting personal or after, had been left to me. Lily made her decision before we left the table; she rubbed her eye with her middle finger. Yes, on the check. I considered my question. Would she be a better quiz prospect while she was still wondering if she had made a sale, or after it was in the bag'My understanding of attractive young women wouldn’t tell me, so I fingered in my pocket for a quarter, slipped it out, and glanced at it. Heads. I rubbed my left eye and saw that Lily got it.

Back in the living room, when coffee had been poured, Lily excused herself and left us. In a minute she returned, went to Miss Brooke, and handed her a little rectangle of blue paper. “There,” she said. “It won’t get me into heaven, but it may help a little. Green pastures.”

Susan Brooke looked at it-not just a glance, a full look. “The lovely lunch and this too,” she said. She had a nice soft voice but ran her words together some. “Many-many thanks, Miss Rowan, but of course they’re not just from me, they’re from all of us. Is it all right to list you as a patron?”

Lily sat. “Certainly, if you want. My father made that money building sewers with one hand and playing politics with the other.” She picked up her coffee cup and sipped. “Since you can afford to donate your time, I suppose your father knows how to make money too.”

“Yes, he did.” She closed her bag with the check inside. “Not building sewers, real estate. He died six years ago.”

“In New York?”

“No, Wisconsin.”

“Oh. Omaha?”

Lily was showing me how smart she was. We had driven across Nebraska on the way to Montana. Miss Brooke politely didn’t smile. “No, Racine,” she said.

Lily sipped coffee. “I suppose I’m being nosy, but to me it’s-well, you’re fascinating. I’m not lazy or stingy, I’m merely useless. I simply don’t understand you. Do you mind if I try to?”

“No, of course not.” She tapped her bag. “Your money isn’t useless, Miss Rowan.”

Lily flipped a hand. “Tax-deductible. But your time and energy aren’t. Have you been doing this ever since you came to New York?”

“Oh no. Only two years-a little more. There’s nothing fascinating about me, believe me. When I finished college-I barely made it, I’m Radcliffe ‘fifty-nine-I went home to Racine and got good and bored. Then something happened, and-Anyway, my father was dead and only my mother and me in a big house, and we came to New York. My brother was here and he suggested it. But you didn’t ask for my autobiography.”

“Yes, I did. Practically. You live with your brother?”

She shook her head. “We did for a while, but then we took an apartment-my mother and I. And I got a job.” She put her empty cup down, and I got up and filled it. I was glad of the chance to contribute something.

“If you can stand any more,” Lily said, “what kind of a job?”

“I can stand it if you can. Reading manuscripts for a publisher. It was terrible-you would never believe what some people think is fit to print. Then I got a job at the UN, a desk job. The job was about as bad, but I met a lot of different people, and I realized how silly I was to do dull paying jobs when I didn’t need the pay. It was a girl I met at the UN, a colored girl, who gave me the idea of the ROCC, and I went and asked if I could do something.” She drank coffee.

“Absolutely fascinating,” Lily declared. “Don’t you think so, Mr. Goodwin?”

“No,” I said flatly. A business adviser should be tough. “It depends on what satisfies a person, that’s all. You ladies both have all the money you need, and in my opinion you’re both rather selfish. You could make a couple of men secure and happy and comfortable, but you won’t take the trouble. Neither of you is married. At least-you haven’t been married, Miss Brooke?”


“And don’t intend to be?”

She laughed, a soft little laugh. “Maybe I will. After what you’ve said, I’ll feel selfish if I don’t. I’ll invite you and Miss Rowan to the wedding.”

“I’ll accept with pleasure. By the way, which publisher did you read manuscripts for'I had one rejected once, and it may have been you.”

“Oh, I hope not. The Parthenon Press.”

“Then it wasn’t you. Another by the way, this will amuse you. When Miss Rowan got the idea of making a contribution to the ROCC she asked me to check a little, and I asked around, and one man said there was probably some Communist influence. Of course people say that about any outfit they don’t like, but he mentioned a name. Dunbar Whipple. He had no evidence, just hearsay. But Whipple might like to know about it. I’d rather not name the man who said it.”

No flush or fluster. She even looked a little amused. “I hope,” she said, “this isn’t a new way of asking me if I’m a Communist.”

“It isn’t. I’m plain and simple. I would just say, are you?”

“And I would just say no. At first, when people tried to ask me if I was a Communist without really asking it I got indignant, but I soon saw that was silly. I handle it better now. Are you a Birchite, Mr. Goodwin?”

“I refuse to answer. I’m indignant.”

She laughed a little. “You’ll get over it. As for Dunbar Whipple, he’s special. He’s young and he has a lot to learn, but he’ll be the first Negro mayor of New York City.” She turned. “I warn you, Miss Rowan, some day I may ask you for a different kind of contribution-to the Whipple for Mayor campaign fund. Would you vote for a Negro?”

Lily said it would depend, that she voted for Democrats only, in respect to the memory of her father. I arose to pour coffee, but Miss Brooke looked at her watch and said she had an appointment. Lily gestured toward the terrace and said it was a day to ignore appointments, but Miss Brooke said she couldn’t, it was a meeting about a school boycott. She gave Lily a healthy thank-you handshake, but not me, which was proper, since I hadn’t said definitely that I wasn’t a Birchite. As Lily convoyed her to the foyer I filled my cup and took it to the glass doors to admire the weather.

Lily came to join me. “Quite a gal,” she said. “Fighting her way through that to talk school boycott. If she’s fascinating, it’s lucky for me I’m not.”

“It’s one of your best points,” I said, “that you’re not fascinating.” I put the cup on a plant stand.

“And that I’m rather selfish. Look me in the eye, Escamillo. Take that back about making you secure and happy and comfortable.”

“Not me. I merely said a man.”

“Name one.”

“Nero Wolfe.”

“Ha. What will you bet I couldn’t?”

“Not a dime. I know him, but I know you too. No bet.”

“You would have to move out.” She had a look in her eye, I would say the look of a tiger stalking a herd of deer if I had ever seen a tiger stalk deer. “We would fire Fritz, and of course Theodore. He would read aloud to me. We would ditch the orchids and take out the partitions in the plant rooms and have dancing parties, and you wouldn’t be invited. For lunch we would have peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, and-“

I clapped a palm over her mouth with my other hand at the back of her head. With no effort to break away, she tried to bite. I said, “When you’re ready to discuss the subject, shut your right eye.”

She shut her right eye, and I took my hands away. “Well?”

“I stand pat,” she said. “She’s fascinating.”

“To you. It’s perfectly simple. She’s a status-seeker. She wants to be the mayor’s wife.”

“Uhuh. I always laugh at your cracks to make you secure and happy and comfortable, but may I skip that one'You’re trying to get something on her that will keep that colored man from marrying her. Right?”

“That’s the idea.”

“Then two things. First, I don’t think you’ll get anything unless you invent it, and I know you wouldn’t. I don’t think there’s anything to get-anything bad enough to count. Second, if there is, I hope you don’t get it through anything you heard here. I couldn’t blame you, but I would blame me. If she and that Negro want to get married they may be darned fools, of course I think they are, but it’s their lookout. So do me a favor. If you stop it, and something you heard here got you started on what stops it, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. That’s me. You know?”

“Sure.” I looked at my wrist: a quarter to three. “If I had any personal feelings about it they would be about the same as yours, but I haven’t. Rights all over the place. She has a right to marry him. He has a right to marry her. The father and mother have a right to butt in, they’ve been doing it for ten thousand years. Nero Wolfe has a right to meet an obligation to a man. I have a right to earn my pay by doing what I’m told, providing it doesn’t clash with my right to stay out of jail. So I’ll run along and drop in at the office of the Parthenon Press, which is only a few blocks from here.”

“There won’t be anyone there. Look at that snow. I can beat you at gin. Don’t they send people home?”

I looked. “They might at that. May I use the phone?” She was right. I got an answer, but not from the switchboard girl. Some man told me that everybody had gone. When I hung up Lily called through an open door, “I’m in here. Come on. I have a right to win enough to pay for the lunch.”

She did, about.

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