The Body in the Hall
I do sometimes treat myself to a walk in the rain, though I prefer sunshine when there’s not enough wind to give the dust a whirl. That rainy Wednesday, however, there was a special inducement: I wanted his raincoat to be good and wet when I delivered it. So with it on my back and my old brown felt on my head, I left the house and set out for Arbor Street, some two miles south in the Village.
Halfway there the rain stopped and my blood had pumped me warm, so I took the coat off, folded it wet side in, hung it on my arm, and proceeded. Arbor Street, narrow and only three blocks long, had on either side an assortment of old brick houses, mostly of four stories, which were neither spick nor span. Number 29 would be about the middle of the first block.
I reached it, but I didn’t enter it. There was a party going on in the middle of the block. A police car was double-parked in front of the entrance to one of the houses, and a uniformed cop was on the sidewalk in an attitude of authority toward a small gathering of citizens confronting him. As I approached I heard him demanding, “Whose dog is this?” — referring, evidently, to an animal with a wet black coat standing behind him. I heard no one claim the dog, but I wouldn’t have anyway, because my attention was diverted. Another police car rolled up and stopped behind the first one, and a man got out, pushed through the crowd to the sidewalk, nodded to the cop without halting, and went in the entrance, above which appeared the number 29.
The trouble was, I knew the man, which is an understatement. I do not begin to tremble at the sight of Sergeant Purley Stebbins of Manhattan Homicide West, which is also an understatement, but his presence and manner made it a cinch that there was a corpse in that house, and if I demanded entry on the ground that I wanted to swap raincoats with a guy who had walked off with mine, there was no question what would happen. My prompt appearance at the scene of a homicide would arouse all of Purley’s worst instincts, backed up by reference to various precedents, and I might not get home in time for dinner, which was going to be featured by grilled squab with a brown sauce which Fritz calls
Purley had disappeared within without spotting me. The cop was a complete stranger. As I slowed down to detour past him on the narrow sidewalk he gave me an eye and demanded, “That your dog?”
The dog was nuzzling my knee, and I stooped to give him a pat on his wet black head. Then, telling the cop he wasn’t mine, I went on by. At the next corner I turned right, heading back uptown. I kept my eye peeled for a taxi the first couple of blocks, saw none, and decided to finish the walk. A wind had started in from the west, but everything was still damp from the rain.
Marching along, I was well on my way before I saw the dog. Stopping for a light on Ninth Avenue in the Twenties, I felt something at my knee, and there he was. My hand started for his head in reflex, but I pulled it back. I was in a fix. Apparently he had picked me for a pal, and if I just went on he would follow, and you can’t chase a dog on Ninth Avenue by throwing rocks. I could have ditched him by taking a taxi the rest of the way, but that would have been pretty rude after the appreciation he had shown of my charm. He had a collar on with a tag, and could be identified, and the station house was only a few blocks away, so the simplest and cheapest way was to convoy him there. I moved to the curb to look for a taxi coming downtown, and as I did so a cyclone sailed around the corner and took my hat with it into the middle of the avenue.
I didn’t dash out into the traffic, but you should have seen that dog. He sprang across the bow of a big truck, wiping its left front fender with his tail, braked landing to let a car by, sprang again, and was under another car — or I thought he was — and then I saw him on the opposite sidewalk. He snatched the hat from under the feet of a pedestrian, turned on a dime, and started back. This time his crossing wasn’t so spectacular, but he didn’t dally. He came to me and stood, lifting his head and wagging his tail. I took the hat. It had skimmed a puddle of water on its trip, but I thought he would be disappointed if I didn’t put it on, so I did. Naturally that settled it. I flagged a cab, took the dog in with me, and gave the driver the address of Wolfe’s house.
My idea was to take my hat hound upstairs to my room, give him some refreshment, and phone the ASPCA to send for him. But there was no sense in passing up such an opportunity for a little buzz at Wolfe, so after letting us in and leaving my hat and the raincoat on the rack in the hall, I proceeded to the door to the office and entered.
“Where the devil have you been?” Wolfe asked grumpily. “We were going over some lists at six o’clock, and it’s a quarter to seven.”
He was in his oversized chair behind his desk with a book, and his eyes hadn’t left the page to spare me a glance. I answered him. “Taking that damn raincoat. Only I didn’t deliver it, because—”
“What’s that?” he snapped. He was glaring at my companion.
“I see it is. I’m in no temper for buffoonery. Get it out of here.”
“Yes, sir, right away. I can keep him in my room most of the time, but of course he’ll have to come downstairs and through the hall when I take him out. He’s a hat hound. There is a sort of a problem. His name is Nero, which, as you know, means ‘black,’ and of course I’ll have to change it. Ebony would do, or Jet, or Inky, or—”
“No, sir. I get pretty darned lonesome around here, especially during the four hours a day you’re up in the plant rooms. You have your orchids, and Fritz has his turtle, and Theodore has his parakeets up in the potting room, and why shouldn’t I have a dog? I admit I’ll have to change his name, though he is registered as Champion Nero Charcoal of Bantyscoot. I have suggested...”
I went on talking only because I had to. It was a fizzle. I had expected to induce a major outburst, even possibly something as frantic as Wolfe leaving his chair to evict the beast himself, and there he was gazing at Nero with an expression I had never seen him aim at any human, including me. I went on talking, forcing it.
He broke in. “It’s not a hound. It’s a Labrador retriever.”
That didn’t faze me. I’m never surprised at a display of knowledge by a bird who reads as many books as Wolfe does. “Yes, sir,” I agreed. “I only said hound because it would be natural for a private detective to have a hound.”
“Labradors,” he said, “have a wider skull than any other dog, for brain room. A dog I had when I was a boy, in Montenegro, a small brown mongrel, had a rather narrow skull, but I did not regard it as a defect. I do not remember that I considered that dog to have a defect. Today I suppose I would be more critical. When you smuggled that creature in here did you take into account the disruption it would cause in this household?”
It had backfired on me. I had learned something new about the big fat genius: he would enjoy having a dog around, provided he could blame it on me and so be free to beef when he felt like it. As for me, when I retire to the country I’ll have a dog, and maybe two, but not in town.
I snapped into reverse. “I guess I didn’t,” I confessed. “I do feel the need for a personal pet, but what the hell, I can try a canary or a chameleon. Okay, I’ll get rid of him. After all, it’s your house.”
“I do not want to feel responsible,” he said stiffly, “for your privation. I would almost rather put up with its presence than with your reproaches.”
“Forget it.” I waved a hand. “I’ll try to. I promise not to rub it in.”
“Another thing,” he persisted. “I refuse to interfere with any commitment you have made.”
“I have made no commitment.”
“Then where did you get it?”
“Well, I’ll tell you.”
I went and sat at my desk and did so. Nero, the four-legged one, came and lay at my feet with his nose just not touching the toe of my shoe. I reported the whole event, with as much detail as if I had been reporting a vital operation in a major case, and, when I had finished, Wolfe was of course quite aware that my presentation of Nero as a permanent addition to the staff had been a plant. Ordinarily he would have made his opinion of my performance clear, but this time he skipped it, and it was easy to see why. The idea of having a dog that he could blame on me had got in and stuck.
When I came to the end and stopped there was a moment’s silence, and then he said, “Jet would be an acceptable name for that dog.”
“Yeah.” I swiveled and reached for the phone. “I’ll call the ASPCA to come for him.”
“No.” He was emphatic.
“Because there is a better alternative. Call someone you know in the Police Department — anyone. Give him the number on the dog’s tag, and ask him to find out who the owner is. Then you can inform the owner directly.”
He was playing for time. It could happen that the owner was dead or in jail or didn’t want the dog back, and if so Wolfe could take the position that I had committed myself by bringing the dog home in a taxi and that it would be dishonorable to renege. However, I didn’t want to argue, so I phoned a precinct sergeant who I knew was disposed to do me small favors. He took Nero’s number and said it might take a while at that time of ...