The Black Mountain
In a way this is a phony. A lot of the talk I report was in languages I am not on speaking terms with, so even with the training I’ve had there is no use pretending that here it is, word for word. But this is what happened, and since I had to know what was going on to earn my keep, Nero Wolfe put it in English for me every chance he got. For the times when it had to be on the fly, and pretty sketchy, I have filled it in as well as I could. Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to tell it at all, but I hated to skip it.
That was the one and only time Nero Wolfe had ever seen the inside of the morgue.
That Thursday evening in March I barely caught the phone call. With a ticket for a basketball game at the Garden in my pocket, I had dined in the kitchen, because I would have to leave the house at ten to eight, and Wolfe refuses to sit at table with one who has to pack it in and run. And that time I couldn’t eat early because Fritz was braising a wild turkey and had to convey it to the dining room on a platter for Wolfe to see whole before wielding the knife. Sometimes when I have a date for a game or a show I get things from the refrigerator around six-thirty and take my time, but I wanted some of that hot turkey, not to mention Fritz’s celery sauce and corn fritters.
I was six minutes behind schedule when, as I pushed my chair back and got erect, the phone rang. After asking Fritz to get it on the kitchen extension and proceeding to the hall, I had got my topcoat from the rack and was putting it on when Fritz called to me, “Archie! Sergeant Stebbins wants you!”
I muttered something appropriate for muttering but not for printing, made it to the office and across to my desk, lifted the receiver, and told it, “Shoot. You may have eight seconds.”
It took more like eight times eighty, not because Purley Stebbins insisted on it, but I did after he had given me the main fact. When I had hung up I stood a while, frowning at Wolfe’s desk. Many times through the years I have had the job of reporting something to Wolfe that I knew he wouldn’t enjoy hearing, but this was different. This was tough. I even found myself wishing I had got away two minutes sooner, and then, realizing that that would have been tougher — for him, at least — I went to the hall, crossed it to the dining room, entered and spoke.
“That was Purley Stebbins. Half an hour ago a man came out of a house on East Fifty-fourth Street and was shot and killed by a man waiting there in a parked car. Papers found—”
Wolfe cut me off. “Must I remind you that business shall not intrude on meals?”
“You don’t need to. This isn’t business. Papers found on the body indicate that it was Marko Vukcic. Purley says there’s no doubt about it, two of the dicks knew him by sight, but he wants me to come down and give positive identification. If you have no objection I’m going. It won’t be as pleasant a way to spend an evening as going to a ball game, but I’m sure he would have done as much...”
I would have preferred to go on talking, but had to stop to clear my throat. Wolfe had put down his knife and fork, quietly and properly, on his plate. His eyes were leveled at me, but he wasn’t scowling. A corner of his mouth twitched, and after a moment twitched again. To stop it he compressed his lips.
He nodded at me. “Go. Phone.”
“Have you any—”
I whirled and went.
After going a block south on Tenth Avenue and flagging a taxi on Thirty-fourth Street, it didn’t take long to roll cross-town to the city mortuary on East Twenty-ninth; and, since I was not a stranger there and was expected, I was passed through the railing and on in with no questions asked. I have never cared for the smell of that place. An assistant medical examiner named Faber tried once to sell me the idea that it smells just like a hospital, but I have a good nose and I didn’t buy. He claimed that there are rarely more than one or two cadavers on the premises not in the coolers, and I said in that case someone must spray the joint with something to make it smell like a morgue.
The Homicide dick who escorted me down the corridor was one I knew only well enough to nod to, and the assistant ME in the room we entered was one I hadn’t run across before. He was working on an object that was stretched out on a long table under a strong light, with a helper standing by. The dick and I stood and watched a minute. A detailed description of the performance would help only if you expect to be faced with the job of probing a corpse for a bullet that entered at an angle between the fifth and sixth ribs, so I won’t go into it.
“Well?” the dick demanded.
“Yes,” I told him. “I identify it as the body of Marko Vukcic, owner of Rusterman’s Restaurant. If you want that signed, get it ready while I go use the phone.”
I went out and down the corridor to the phone booth and dialed a number. Ordinarily when I am out of the house and phone in Fritz will answer after two or three signals or Wolfe will answer after five or six, but that time Wolfe’s voice came before the first whirr was done.
“Archie. It’s Marko. Shot twice in the chest and once in the belly. I suppose Stebbins is up at Fifty-fourth Street, at the scene, and maybe Cramer too. Shall I go up there?”
“No. Stay where you are. I’m coming to look at him. Where is it?”
He had been making a living as a private detective in Manhattan for more than twenty years, and majoring in murder, and he didn’t know where the morgue was. I told him; and, thinking that a little
Donovan shook his head. “I only got orders about you.”
“Nuts. You don’t need orders. Any citizen and taxpayer can enter here to look for the remains of a relative or friend or enemy. Mr. Wolfe is a citizen and taxpayer. I make out his tax returns.”
“I thought you was a private eye.”
“I don’t like the way you say it, but I am. Also I am an accountant, an amanuensis, and a cocklebur. Eight to five you never heard the word amanuensis and you never saw a cocklebur.”
He didn’t rile. “Yeah, I know, you’re an educated wit. For Nero Wolfe I need orders. I know too much about him. Maybe he can get away with his tricks with Homicide and the DA, but not with me or none of my guests.”
I didn’t feel like arguing. Besides, I knew Donovan had a lot to put up with. When the door opened to admit a customer it might be anything from a pair of hoodlums wanting to collect data for a fake identification, to a hysterical female wanting to find out if she was a widow. That must have got on his nerves. So I merely explained it to him. I told him a few things about Marko Vukcic. That he was one of the only ten men I knew of that Nero Wolfe called by their first names. That for years he had dined once a month at Wolfe’s table, and Wolfe and I had dined once a month at his restaurant. That he and Wolfe had been boys together in Montenegro, which was now a part of Yugoslavia. Donovan seemed to be listening, but he wasn’t impressed. When I thought I had made the situation perfectly plain and stopped for breath, he turned to his phone, called Homicide, told them Wolfe was coming, and asked for instructions.
He hung up. “They’ll call back,” he informed me.
No bones got broken. His instructions came a minute before the door opened to admit Wolfe. I went and opened the gate in the railing, and Wolfe stepped through. “This way,” I said and steered him to the corridor and along to the room.
The doctor had got the slug that had entered between the fifth and sixth ribs, and was going for the one lower down. I saw that from three paces off, where I stopped. Wolfe went on until the part of him that is farthest front, his middle, was touching the edge of the table. The doctor recognized him and spoke.
“I understand he was a friend of yours, Mr. Wolfe.”
“He was,” Wolfe said a little louder than necessary. He moved sidewise, reached a hand, put fingertips under Marko’s chin, and pushed the jaw up so that the mouth closed; but when he took his hand away the lips parted again. He turned his head to frown at the doctor.
“That’ll be arranged,” the doctor assured him.
Wolfe nodded. He put fingers and a thumb into his vest pocket, withdrew them, and showed the doctor two small coins. “These are old dinars. I would like to fulfill a pledge made many years ago.” The scientist said sure, go ahead, and Wolfe reached to Marko’s face again, this time to place the coins on the eyes. The head was twisted a little, and he had to level it so the coins would stay put.
He turned away. “That’s all. I have no further commitment to the clay. Come, Archie.”
I followed him out and along the corridor to the front. The dick who had been my escort, there chinning with the sergeant, told me I didn’t need to sign a statement and asked Wolfe if he verified the identification. Wolfe said he did and added, “Where’s Mr. Cramer?”
“Sony, I couldn’t tell you.”
Wolfe turned to me. “I told the driver to wait. You said East Fifty-f ...