When a Man Murders…

Rex Stout

When a Man Murders...

I

“That’s just it,” she declared, trying to keep her voice steady. “We’re not actually married.”

My brows went up. Many a time, seated there at my desk in Nero Wolfe’s office, I have put the eye on a female visitor to estimate how many sound reasons she might offer why a wedding ring would be a good buy, but usually I don’t bother with those who are already hitched, so my survey of this specimen had been purely professional, especially since her husband was along. Now, however, I changed focus. She would unquestionably grade high, after allowing for the crease in her forehead, the redness around her eyes, and the tension of her jaw muscles, tightening her lips. Making such allowances was nothing new for me, since most of the callers at that office are in trouble, seldom trivial.

Wolfe, who had just come down from the plant rooms in the roof and got his impressive bulk settled in his oversized chair behind his desk, glared at her. “But you told Mr. Goodwin—” he began, stopped, and turned to me. “Archie?”

I nodded. “Yes, sir. A man on the phone said his name was Paul Aubry, and he and his wife wanted to come to see you as soon as possible, and I told him six o’clock. I didn’t tell him to bring their marriage certificate.”

“We have one,” she said, “but it’s no good.” She twisted her head around and up. “Tell him, Paul.”

She was in the red leather chair near the end of Wolfe’s desk. It is roomy, with big arms, and Paul Aubry was perched on one of them, with an arm extended along the top of the back. I had offered him one of the yellow chairs, which are perfectly adequate, but apparently he preferred to stick closer to his wife, if any.

“It’s one hell of a mess!” he blurted.

He wasn’t red-eyed, but there was evidence that he was sharing the trouble. His hand on top of the chair-back was tightened into a fist, his fairly well-arranged face was grim, and his broad shoulders seemed to be hunched in readiness to meet an attack. He bent his head to meet her upward look.

“Don’t you want to tell him?” he asked.

She shook her head. “No, you.” She put out a hand to touch his knee and then jerked it away.

His eyes went to Wolfe. “We were married six months ago — six months and four days — but now we’re not married, according to the law. We’re not married because my wife, Caroline—” He paused to look down at her, and, his train of thought interrupted, reached to take her hand, but it moved, and he didn’t get it.

He stood up, squared his shoulders, faced Wolfe, and spoke faster and louder. “Four years ago she married a man named Sidney Karnow. A year later he enlisted in the Army and was sent to Korea. A few months later she was officially informed that he was dead — killed in action. A year after that I met her and fell in love with her and asked her to marry me, but she wouldn’t until two years had passed since Karnow died, and then she did. Three weeks ago Karnow turned up alive — he phoned his lawyer here from San Francisco — and last week he got his Army discharge, and Sunday, day before yesterday, he came to New York.”

Aubry hunched his shoulders like Jack Dempsey ready to move in. “I’m not giving her up,” he told the world. “I — will — not — give — her — up!”

Wolfe grunted. “It’s fifteen million to one, Mr. Aubry.”

“What do you mean, fifteen million?”

“The People of the State of New York. They’re lined up against you, officially at least, I’m one of them. Why in heaven’s name did you come to me? You should have cleared out with her days ago — Turkey, Australia, Burma, anywhere — if she was willing. It may not be too late if you hurry. Bon voyage.”

Aubry stood a moment, took a deep breath, turned and went to the yellow chair I had placed, and sat. Becoming aware that his fists were clenched, he opened them, cupped his hands on his knees, and looked at Caroline. He lifted a hand and let it fall back to his knee. “I can’t touch you,” he said.

“No,” she said. “Not while — no.”

“Okay, you tell him. He might think I was bulling it. You tell him.”

She shook her head. “He can ask me. I’m right here. Go ahead.”

He went to Wolfe. “It’s like this. Karnow was an only child, and his parents are both dead, and he inherited a pile, nearly two million dollars. He left a will giving half of it to my — to Caroline, and the other half to some relatives, an aunt and a couple of cousins. His lawyer had the will. After notice of his death came it took several months to get the will probated and the estate distributed, on account of special formalities in a case like that. Caroline’s share was a little over nine hundred thousand dollars, and she had it when I met her, and was living on the income. All I had was a job selling automobiles, making around a hundred and fifty a week, but it was her I fell in love with, not the million, just for your information. When we got married it was her idea that I ought to buy an agency, but I’m not saying I fought it. I shopped around and we bought a good one at a bargain, and—”

“What kind of agency?”

“Automobile.” Aubry’s tone implied that that was the only kind of agency worth mentioning. “Brandon and Hiawatha. It took nearly half of Caroline’s capital to swing it, but in the past three months we’ve cleared over twenty thousand after taxes, and the future was looking rosy — when this happened. I was figuring — but to hell with that, that’s sunk. This proposition we want to offer Karnow, it’s not my idea and it’s not Caroline’s, it’s ours. It just came out of all our talking and talking after we heard Karnow was alive. Last week we went to Karnow’s lawyer, Jim Beebe, to get him to propose it to Karnow, but we couldn’t persuade him. He said he knew Karnow too well — he was in college with him — and he knew Karnow wouldn’t even listen to it. So we decided—”

“What was the proposal?”

“We thought it was a fair offer. We offered to turn it all over to him, the half-million Caroline has left, and the agency, the whole works, if he would consent to a divorce. Also I would continue to run the agency if he wanted to hire me. Also Caroline would ask for no settlement and no alimony.”

“It was my idea,” she said.

“It was ours,” he insisted.

Wolfe was frowning at them. My brows were up again. Evidently he really was in love with her and not the dough, and I’m all for true love up to a point. As for her, my attitude flopped back to the purely professional. Granting that she was set to ditch her lawful husband, if she felt that her Paul was worth a million bucks to her it would have taken too much time and energy to try to talk her out of it. Cocking an eye at his earnest phiz, which was passable, but no pin-up, I would have said that she was overpricing him.

He was going on. “So when Beebe wouldn’t do it and we learned that Karnow had come to New York, we decided I would see him myself and put it up to him. We only decided that last night. I had some business appointments this morning, and this afternoon I went to his hotel — he’s at the Churchill — and went up to his room. I didn’t phone ahead because I’ve never seen him, and I wanted to see him before I spoke with him. I wanted a look at him.”

Aubry stopped to rub a palm across his forehead, pressing hard. When his hand dropped to his thigh it became a fist again. “One trouble,” he said, “was that I wasn’t absolutely sure what I was going to say. The main proposition, that was all right, but there were two other things in my mind. The agency is incorporated, and half of the stock is in Caroline’s name and half in mine. Well, I could tell him that if he didn’t take the offer I would hang on to my half and fight for it, but I hadn’t decided whether to or not. The other thing, I could tell him that Caroline is pregnant. It wouldn’t have been true, and I guess I wouldn’t have said it, but it was in my mind. Anyhow it doesn’t matter because I didn’t see him.”

He clamped his jaw and then relaxed it. “This is where I didn’t shine, I admit that, but it wasn’t just cold feet. I went up to the door of his room, twenty-three-eighteen, without phoning, and I lifted my hand to knock, but I didn’t. Because I realized I was trembling, I was trembling all over. I stood there a while to calm down, but I didn’t calm. I realized that if I went in there and put it to him and he said nothing doing, there was no telling what might happen. The way I was feeling I was a lot more apt to queer it than help it. So I just ducked it. I’m not proud of it, but I’m telling you, I gave it a miss and came away. Caroline was waiting for me in a bar down the street, and I went and told her, and that wasn’t easy either, telling her I had muffed it. Up to then she had thought I could handle about anything that came along. She thought I was good.”

“I still do, Paul,” she told him.

“Yeah? I can’t touch you.”

“Not now. Not until—” Her hand fluttered. “Don’t keep saying that.”

“Okay, we’ll skip it.” He went back to Wolfe. “So I told her the man-to-man approach was a bum idea, and we sat and chewed at it. We decided that none of our friends was up to it. The lawyer I use for the agency wouldn’t be worth a damn. When one of us thought of you — I forget which — it clicked with both of us, and I went to a booth to phone for an appointment. Maybe you can get him down here and you make him the proposition yourself, or if he won’t come you can send Archie Goodwin to see him. Caroline has the idea it might be better to send Goodwin ...

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