“Mr Goodwin,” Deborah Koppel said. “Mr Meadows.”
“Bill Meadows. Just make it Bill, everyone does.” His handshake was out of stock, but he had the muscle for it. “So you're Archie Goodwin? This is a real pleasure! The next best thing to meeting the great Nero Wolfe himself!”
A rich contralto voice broke in: “This is my rest period, Mr Goodwin, and they won't let me get up. I'm not even supposed to talk, but when the time conies that I don't talk-!”
I stepped across to the bed, and as I took the hand Madeline Fraser offered she smiled. It wasn't a shrewd smile like Deborah KoppePs, or a synthetic one like Bill Meadows's, but just a smile from her to me. Her grey-green eyes didn't give the impression that she was measuring me, though she probably was, and I sure was measuring her. She was slender but not skinny and she looked quite long, stretched out on the bed. With no makeup on it at all it was quite possible to look at her face without having to resist an impulse to look somewhere else, which was darned good for a woman certainly close to forty and probably a little past it, especially since I personally can see no point in spending eyesight on females over thirty.
“You know,” she said, “I have often been tempted-bring chairs up, Bill-to ask Nero Wolfe to be a guest on my programme.”
She said it like a trained broadcaster, breaking it up so it would sound natural but arranging the inflections so that listeners of any mental age whatever would get it.
“I'm afraid,” I told her with a grin, “that he wouldn't accept unless you ran wires to his office and broadcast from there. He never leaves home on business, and rarely for anything at all.” I lowered myself on to one of the chairs Bill had brought up, and he and Deborah Koppel took the other two.
Madeline Fraser nodded. “Yes, I know.” She had turned on her side to see me without twisting her neck, and the hip curving up under the thin yellow gown made her seem not quite so slender. “Is that just a publicity trick or does he really like it?”
“I guess both. He's very lazy, and he's scared to death of moving objects, especially things on wheels.”
“Wonderful! Tell me all about him.”
“Some other time, Lina,” Deborah Koppel put in. “Mr Goodwin has a suggestion for you, and you have a broadcast tomorrow and haven't even looked at the script.”
“My God, is it Monday already?”
“Monday and half-past three,” Deborah said patiently.
The radio prima donna's torso popped up to perpendicular as if someone had given her a violent jerk. “What's the suggestion?” she demanded, and flopped back again.
“What made him think of it,” I said, “was something that happened to him Saturday. This great nation took him for a ride. Two rides. The Rides of March.”
“Income tax? Me too. But what-”
“That's good!” Bill Meadows exclaimed. “Where did you get it? Has it been on the air?”
“Not that I know of. I created it yesterday morning while I was brushing my teeth.”
“We'll give you ten bucks for it-no, wait a minute.” He turned to Deborah. “What percentage of our audience ever heard of the Ides of March?”
“One-half of one,” she said as if she were quoting a published statistic. “Cut.”
“You can have it for a dollar,” I offered generously. “Mr Wolfe's suggestion will cost you a lot more. Like everyone in the upper brackets, he's broke.” My eyes were meeting the grey-green gaze of Madeline Fraser. “He suggests that you hire him to investigate the murder of Cyril Orchard.”
“Oh, Lord,” Bill Meadows protested, and brought his hands up to press the heels of his palms against his eyes. Deborah Koppel looked at him, then at Madeline Fraser, and took in air for a deep sigh. Miss Fraser shook her head, and suddenly looked older and more in need of makeup.
“We have decided,” she said, “that the only thing we can do about that is forget it as soon as possible. We have ruled it out of conversation.”
“That would be fine and sensible,” I conceded, “if you could make everyone, including the cops and the papers, obey the rule. But aside from the difficulty of shutting people up about any old kind of a murder, even a dull one, it was simply too good a show. Maybe you don't realize how good. Your programme has an eight million audience, twice a week. Your guests were a horse-race tipster and a professor of mathematics from a big university. And smack in the middle of the programme one of them makes terrible noises right into the microphone, and keels over, and pretty soon he's dead, and he got the poison right there on the broadcast, in the product of one of your sponsors.”
I darted glances at the other two and then back to the woman on the bed. “I knew I might meet any one of a dozen attitudes here, but I sure didn't expect this one. If you don't know, you ought to, that one like that doesn't get ruled out of conversation, not only not in a week, but not in twenty years-not when the question is still open who provided the poison. Twenty years from now people would still be arguing about who was it, Madeline Fraser or Deborah Koppel or Bill Meadows or Nathan Traub or F. O. Savarese or Elinor Vance or Nancylee Shepherd or Tully Strong-”
The door came open and the female wrestler entered and announced in a hasty breath: “Mr Strong is here.”
“Send him in, Cora,” Miss Fraser told her.
I suppose I would have been struck by the contrast between Tully Strong and his name if I hadn't known what to expect from his pictures in the papers. He looked like them in the obvious points-the rimless spectacles, the thin lips, the long neck, the hair brushed flat-but somehow in the flesh he didn't look as dumb and vacant as the pictures. I got that much noted while he was being greeted, by the time he turned to me for the introduction.
“Mr Strong,” Deborah Koppel told me, “is the secretary of our Sponsors'
“Yes, I know.”
“Mr Goodwin,” she told him, “has called with a suggestion from Nero Wolfe. Mr Wolfe is a private detective.”
“Yes, I know.” Tully Strong smiled at me. With lips as thin as his it is often difficult to tell whether it's a smile or a grimace, but I would have called it a smile, especially when he added, We are both famous, aren't we? Of course you are accustomed to the glare of the spotlight, but it is quite new to me.” He sat down. “What does Mr Wolfe suggest?”
“He thinks Miss Fraser ought to hire him to look into the murder of Cyril Orchard.”
“Damn Cyril Orchard.” Yes, it had been a smile, for now it was a grimace, and it was quite different. “Damn him to hell!”
“That's pretty tough,” Bill Meadows objected, “since he may be there right now.”
Strong ignored him to ask me, “Aren't the police giving us enough trouble without deliberately hiring someone to give us more?”
“Sure they are,” I agreed, “but that's a shortsighted view of it The person who is really giving you trouble is the one who put the poison in the Starlite. As I was explaining when you came, the trouble will go on for years unless and until he gets tapped on the shoulder. Of course the police may get him, but they've had it for six days now and you know how far they've got. The one that stops the trouble will be the one that puts it where it belongs. Do you know that Mr Wolfe is smart or shall I go into that?”
“I had hoped,” Deborah Koppel put in, “that Mr Wolfe's suggestion would be something concrete. That he had a…an idea.”
“Nope.” I made it definite. “His only idea is to get paid twenty thousand dollars for ending the trouble.”