Over My Dead Body
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by Rex Stout
Description: A spine-tingling NERO WOLFE murder-mystery. It all began when Nero Wolfe was blackmailed into taking the case of a rather stunning blonde who was accused of stealing. Suddenly there was a corpse! And to further complicate matters ... another corpse! Then Nero Wolfe started weaving his fine web. When he had completed it, he was stunned to find himself enmeshed in it! For big spiders were weaving, too! Powerful, international spiders that had everything to lose if Nero Wolfe should win--and who were determined that he should become their fly! But Nero Wolfe again managed to sort out all the queer characters in this intriguing case and put the finger on the killer; but for a while it seemed he would never make it! Mix diamonds and murder ... spice it with an attractive blonde and a sinuous brunette ... put in a weird fencing academy to bake ... and it comes out as international skullduggery with deadly icing! When Nero Wolfe was forced to bite into this concoction, he not only suffered acute private eye indigestion--he was catapulted into the strangest and most dangerous assignment of his colorful career!
eBook Publisher: Wonder Audiobooks, LLC/Wonder eBooks,
eBookwise Release Date: March 2010
11 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [296 KB]
Reading time: 194-272 min.
? so fascinating I couldn't read it fast enough " --Boston Transcript "Read one chapter of this book and you will need no urging to go on with it "--New York Times
The bell rang and I went to the front and opened the door and there she was. I said good morning.
"Pliz," she said, "I would like to see Misturr Nero Wolfe."
Or you might have spelled it plihz or plizz or plihsz. However you spelled it, it wasn't Middle West or New England or Park Avenue or even East Side. It wasn't American, and naturally it irritated me a little. But I politely invited her in and conducted her to the office and got her a chair, and then extracted her name, which I had to ask her to spell.
"Mr. Wolfe will be engaged until eleven o'clock," I told her, with a glance at the wall clock above my desk, which said ten thirty. "I'm Archie Goodwin, his confidential secretary. If you'd like to save time by starting on me ... "
She shook her head and said she had plenty of time. I asked if she would like a book or magazine, and she shook her head again, and I passed her up and resumed at my desk, where I was heading up a bunch of hybridizing cards for use upstairs. Five minutes later I had finished and was checking them over when I heard her voice behind me:
"I believe I would like a book. May I?"
I waved at the shelves and told her to help herself and went on with the checking. Presently I looked up when she approached and stood beside me with a volume in her hand.
"Misturr Wolfe reads this?" she asked. She had a nice soft low voice which would have sounded all right if she had taken the trouble to learn how to pronounce words. I glanced at the title and told her Wolfe had read it some time ago.
"But he stoodies it?"
"Why should he? He's a genius, he don't have to study anything."
"He reads once and then he is through?"
"That's the idea."
She started for her chair and then turned again. "Do you read it perhaps?"
"I do not," I said emphatically.
She half smiled. "It's too complicated for you, the Balkan history?"
"I don't know, I haven't tried it. But I understand all the kings and queens got murdered. I like newspaper murders better."
She turned off the smile and went and sat down with the book, and appeared to be absorbed in it a few minutes later when, the checking finished, I jiggled the handful of cards neatly together and departed with them, and mounted the two flights of carpeted stairs to the top floor and the steeper flight to the roof level, where the entire space was glassed-in for the orchids except the potting room and the corner where Horstmann slept. Passing through the first two rooms, down the aisles with silver staging and concrete benches and thousands of pots holding everything from baby seedlings to odontoglossums and dendrobiums in full bloom, I found Nero Wolfe in the warm room, standing with this thumbs on his hips, frowning at Horstmann, who in turn was scowling reproachfully at an enormous coelogyne blossom with white petals and orange keels. Wolfe was muttering:
"A full two weeks. At the very least, twelve days. As Per Hansa says, I don't know what God expects to accomplish by such management. If it were only a question of forcing--well, Archie?"
I handed Horstmann the cards. "For that batch of miltonias and lycastes. The germination dates are already in where you had them. There's a female immigrant downstairs who wants to borrow a book. She is twenty-two years old and has fine legs. Her face is sullen but well-arranged and her eyes are dark and beautiful and worried. She has a nice voice, but she talks like Lynn Fontanne in Idiot's Delight. Her name is Carla Lovchen."
Wolfe had taken the cards from Horstmann to flip through them, but he stopped to send me a sharp glance. "What's that?" he demanded. "Her name?"
"Lovchen." I spelled it, and grinned. "Yeah, I know, it struck me too. You may remember I read The Native's Return. She seems to be named after a mountain. The Black Mountain. Mount Lovchen. Tsernagora. Montenegro, which is the Venetian variant of Monte Nero, and your name is Nero. It may be only a coincidence, but it's natural for a trained detective--"
"What does she want?"
"She says she wants to see you, but I think she came to borrow a book. She took that United Yugoslavia by Henderson from the shelf and asked if you've read it, and do you stoody it, and am I reading it and so on. She's down there with her pretty nose in it. But as I say, her eyes look worried. I had a notion to tell her that because of the healthy condition of the bank account--"
I turned it off because he was ignoring me and giving his attention to the cards. Reflecting that that was an unusually childish gesture even for him, since it lacked only three minutes till eleven o'clock, the hour when he invariably proceeded from the plant rooms to the office, I snorted audibly, wheeled, and went for the stairs.
The immigrant was still in the chair, reading, but had abandoned the book for a magazine. I looked around for it to return it to the shelf, but saw that she had already done so; it was back in its place, and I gave her a good mark for that because I've noticed that most girls are so darned untidy around a house. I told her Wolfe would be down soon, and had just got my notes cleared away and the typewriter lowered when I heard the door of his personal elevator clanging, and a moment later he entered. A pace short of his desk he arrested his progress to acknowledge the visitor's presence with a little bow which achieved only one degree off the perpendicular, then continued to his chair, got deposited, glanced at the vase of cattleyas and the morning mail under the weight, put his thumb to the button to summon beer, leaned back and adjusted himself, and sighed. The visitor, with the magazine closed on her lap, was gazing at him through long lowered lashes.
Wolfe said abruptly and crisply, "Lovchen? That is not your name. It is no one's name."
Her lashes fluttered. "My name," she said with a half smile, "is what I say it is. Would you call it a convenience? Not to irritate the Americans with a name like Kraljevitch?"
"Is that yours?"
"No matter." Wolfe sounded testy--as far as I could see, for no reason. "You came to see me?"
Her lips parted for a soft little laugh. "You sound like a Tsernagore," she declared. "Or a Montenegrin if you prefer it, as the Americans do. You don't look like one, since Tsernagores grow up and up, not out and all around like you. But when you talk I feel at home. That's exactly how a Tsernagore speaks to a girl. Is it what you eat?"
I turned my head to enjoy a grin. Wolfe demanded, almost bellowing at her, "What can I do for you, Miss Lovchen?"
"Oh yes." Her eyes showed the worry again. "I was forgetting on account of seeing you. You are a famous man, I know that of course, but you don't look famous. You look more like--" She stopped, made a little circle with her lips, and went on, "Anyway, you're famous, and you have been in Montenegro. You see I know much about you. Hvala Bogu. Because I want to engage you on account of some trouble."
"Not my trouble," she continued rapidly. "It's a friend of mine, a girl who came with me to America not long ago. Her name is Neya Tormic." The long black lashes flickered. "Just as mine is Carla Lovchen. We work together at the studio of Nikola Miltan on 48th Street. You know perhaps? Dancing and fencing are taught there. You know him?"
"I've met him," Wolfe admitted gruffly, "at the table of my friend Marko Vukcic. But I'm afraid I'm too busy at present--"
She swept on in front. "We're good fencers, Neya and I. Corsini in Zagreb passed us with foils, epee and saber. And the dancing of course is easy. We learn the Lambeth Walk in twenty minutes, we teach it to rich people in five lessons and they pay high, and Nikola Miltan takes the money and pays us only not so high. That is why, in this foolish trouble Neya has got into, we can pay you not so much as you might expect from some people, but we can pay you a little, and added to that is the fact that we are from Zagreb. It's not a little trouble Neya has got into, it's a big one, through no fault of hers because she is not a thief, as anyone but an American fool would be aware. They'll put her in jail, and you must act quickly, at once--"
Wolfe's face was set in a grimace, showing that he was in the throes of an agitation away beyond his chronic reluctance to bother his mind about business when the bank balance was up in five figures. Displaying a palm at her, he tried to expostulate:
"I tell you I'm too busy--"
She hopped right over it. "I came instead of Neya because she has important lessons this morning and it is necessary we should keep our jobs. But you will have to see her of course, so you will have to go there, and anyway Miltan is arranging for everyone to be there together today, this afternoon, to settle it. It's the biggest nonsense anyone could imagine to suppose that Neya would put her hand in a man's pocket and steal diamonds, but it will be terrible if it happens the way Miltan says it will happen if the diamonds are not returned--but wait--you must let me tell you--"
My mouth was standing open in astonishment. After two hours on his feet in the plant rooms, when he came to the office at eleven o'clock and got lowered into his chair, with me there to annoy him pleasantly and the beer tray freshly delivered by Fritz Brenner, Wolfe was ordinarily as immovable as a two-ton boulder. But now he was rising; he was risen. With a mutter that might have been taken either for an excuse or an imprecation, and with no glance at either of us, he stalked out of the room, by the door that led to the hall. We watched him go and then the immigrant turned and let me have her eyes wide open.
"He gets sick?" she demanded.
I shook my head. "Eccentric," I explained. "I suppose you might call it a form of sickness, but it's nothing tangible like concussion of the brain or whooping cough. Once when a respectable lawyer was sitting in that very chair you're in now--yes, Fritz?"
The door which Wolfe had closed behind him had opened again and Fritz Brenner stood there with a bewildered look on his face.
"In the kitchen a moment, please, Archie."
I got up and excused myself and went to the kitchen. Preliminary preparations for lunch were scattered around on the big linoleum-covered table, but it was obvious that Wolfe had not been suddenly seized with a violent curiosity about food. He stood at the far side of the refrigerator, facing me in a determined manner that seemed entirely uncalled for, and told me abruptly as I entered:
"Send her away."
"My God!" I admit I blew up a little. "She said she'd pay something, didn't she? It's enough to freeze the blood of an alligator! If you read it in her eyes that her friend Neya did actually glumb the glass, you might at least--"
"Archie." It was about as hostile as his voice ever got. "I have skedaddled, physically, once in my life, from one person, and that was a Montenegrin woman. It was many years ago, but my nerves remember it. I neither desire nor intend to explain how I felt when that Montenegrin female voice in there said, 'Hvala Bogu.' Send her away."
"But there's no--"
I saw it was hopeless, though I had no idea whether he was overcome by terror or was staging a stunt. I gave it up and went back to the office and stood in front of her.
"Mr. Wolfe regrets that he will be unable to help your friend out of her trouble. He's busy."
Her head was tilted back to look up at me, and a little gasp left her mouth open. "But he can't--he must!" She jumped to her feet and I backed up a step as her eyes flashed at me. "We are from Tsernagora! She is--my friend is--" Indignation choked it off.
"It's final," I said brusquely. "He won't touch it. Sometimes I can change his mind for him, but there are limits. What does 'hvala Bogu' mean?"
She stared. "It means 'Thank God.' If I see him, tell him--"
"You shouldn't have said it. It gives him the willies to hear a Montenegrin female voice talk Montenegrin. It's a kind of allergy. I'm sorry, Miss Lovchen, but there's not a chance. I know him from A to P, which is as far as he goes. P is for pigheaded."
"But he--I must see him, tell him--"
She was stubborn enough herself so that it took five minutes to persuade her out, and since the only prejudice I had acquired against Montenegrin females up to that point was based merely on pronunciation, which is not after all vital, I didn't want to get rough. Finally I closed the front door behind her and went to the kitchen and announced sarcastically:
"I think it's safe now. Stay close behind me and if I holler run like hell."
Wolfe's inarticulate growl, as I wheeled and headed for the office, warned me that there was barbed wire in that neighborhood, so when he came in a few minutes later and got re-established in his chair I made no effort to explain my viewpoint any further. He drank beer and fiddled around with a pile of catalogues, while I checked over a couple of invoices from Hoehn's and did some miscellaneous chores. When a little later he asked me to please open the window a crack, I knew the tension was relaxing toward normal.
But if either or both of us had any idea that we were through with the Balkans for that day, it wasn't long before we had it jostled out of us. It was customary for Fritz to answer the doorbell from eleven on, when I was in the office with Wolfe. Around twelve thirty he came in, advanced the usual three paces, stood formally, and announced a caller named Stahl who would not declare his business but stated that he was an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
I let out a low whistle and ejaculated cautiously "Aha!" Wolfe opened his eyes a trifle and nodded, and Fritz went for the caller.
We hadn't bumped into a G-man before in the course of business, and when he entered I did him the honor of swiveling clear around for a look. He was all right, medium-sized, with good shoulders, and good eyes, a little skimpy in the jaw, and he needed a shoeshine. He told us his name again and shook hands with both of us, and took from his pocket a little leather case which he flipped open and exhibited to Wolfe with a reserved but friendly smile.
"My credentials," he explained in an educated voice. He certainly had fine manners, something on the order of a high-class insurance salesman.
Wolfe glanced at the exhibit, nodded, and indicated a chair. "Well, sir?"
The G-man looked politely apologetic. "We're sorry to bother you, Mr. Wolfe, but it's our job. I'd like to ask whether you are acquainted with the Federal statute which recently went into effect, requiring persons who are agents in this country of foreign principals to register with the Department of State."
"Not intimately. I read newspapers. I read about that some time ago."
"Then you know of that law?"
"Have you registered?"
"No. I am not an agent of a foreign principal."
The G-man threw one knee over the other. "The law applies to agents of foreign firms, individuals or organizations, as well as to foreign governments."
"So I understand."
"It also applies, here, both to aliens and to citizens. Are you a citizen of the United States?"
"I am. I was born in this country."
"You were at one time an agent of the Austrian government?"
"Briefly, as a boy. Not here, abroad. I quit."
"And joined the Montenegrin army?"
"Later, but still a boy. I then believed that all misguided or cruel people should be shot, and I shot some. I starved to death in 1916."
The G-man looked startled. "I beg your pardon?"
"I said I starved to death. When the Austrians came and we fought machine guns with fingernails. Logically I was dead; a man can't live on dry grass. Actually I went on breathing. When the United States entered the war and I walked six hundred miles to join the A. E. F., I ate again. When it ended I returned to the Balkans, shed another illusion, and came back to America."
"Hvala Bogu," I put in brightly.
Stahl, startled again, shot me a glance. "I beg your pardon? Are you a Montenegrin?"
"Nope. Pure Ohio. The ejaculation was involuntary."
Wolfe, ignoring me, went on, "I would like to say, Mr. Stahl, that my temperament would incline me to resent and resist an attempt by any individual to inquire into my personal history or affairs, but I do not regard you as an individual. Naturally. You represent the Federal government. You are, in effect, America itself sitting in my office wanting to know something about me, and I am so acutely grateful to my native country for the decencies it still manages to preserve ... by the way, would you care for a glass of American beer?"
"No, thank you."
Wolfe pushed the button and leaned back. He grunted. "To your question, sir: I represent no foreign principal, firm, individual, organization, dictator, or government. Occasionally I pursue inquires here, professionally as a detective, on requests from Europe, chiefly from Mr. Ethelbert Hitchcock of London, an English confrere, as he does there for me. I am pursuing none at present. I am not an agent of Mr. Hitchcock or of anyone else."
"I see." Stahl sounded open to conviction. "That's definite enough. But your early experiences in Europe ... may I ask ... do you know a Prince Donevitch?"
"I knew him long ago. He's getting ready to die, I believe, in Paris."
"I don't mean him. Isn't there another one?"
"There is. Old Peter's nephew. Prince Stefan Donevitch. I believe he lives in Zagreb. When I was there in 1916 he was a six-year-old boy."
"Have you communicated with him recently?"
"No. I never have."
"Have you sent money to him or to anyone or any organization for him--or the cause he represents?"
"You do make remittances to Europe, don't you?"
"I do." Wolfe grimaced. "From my own funds, earned at my trade. I have contributed to the Loyalists in Spain. I send money occasionally to the--translated, it is the League of Yugoslavian Youth. Prince Stefan Donevitch assuredly has no connection with that."
"I wouldn't know. What about your wife? Weren't you married?"
"No. Married? No. That was what--" Wolfe stirred, as under restraint, in his chair. "It strikes me, sir, that you are nearing the point where even a grateful American might tell you to go to the devil."
I put in emphatically, "I know damn well I would, and I'm only a sixty-fourth Indian."
The G-man smiled and uncrossed his legs. "I suppose," he said amiably, "you'd have no objection to putting this in the form of a signed statement. What you've told me."
"On a proper occasion, none at all."
"Good. You represent no foreign principal, directly or indirectly?"
"That is correct."
"Well, that's all we wanted to know." He got up. "At present. Thank you very much."
"You're quite welcome. Good day, sir."
I followed him out, to open the front door for America and make sure he was on the proper side of it when it was closed again. Wolfe could get sentimental about it if he wanted to, but I don't like any stranger nosing around my private affairs, let alone a nation of 130 million people. When I returned to the office he was sitting back with his eyes closed.
"You see what happens," I told him bitterly. "Just because you rake in two fat fees and the bank account is momentarily bloated, in the space of three weeks you refuse nine cases. Not counting the poor little immigrant girl with a friend who likes diamonds. You refuse to investigate anything for anybody. Then what happens? America gets suspicious because it's un-American not to make all the money you can, and sicks a Senior G-man on you, and now, by God, you're going to have to investigate yourself! You don't need--"
"Archie. Shut up." His eyes opened. "You're a liar. Since when have you been a sixty-fourth Indian?"
Before I could parry his counterattack Fritz appeared to announce lunch. I knew it was to be warmed-over duck scraps, so I was off at the gun.