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Bill Meadows let out a whistle. Deborah Koppel smiled at me. Tully Strong protested indignantly: “Twenty thousand!”

“Not from me,” said Madeline Fraser, fully as definite as I had been. “I really must get to work on my broadcast, Mr Goodwin.”

“Now wait a minute.” I concentrated on her. “That's only one of my points, getting the trouble over, and not the best one. Look at it this way. You and your programme have had a lot of publicity out of this, haven't you?”

She groaned. “Publicity, my God! The man calls it publicity!”

“So it is,” I maintained, “but out of the wrong barrel. And it's going to keep coming, still out of the wrong barrel, whether you like it or not. Again tomorrow every paper in town will have your name in a front-page headline. You can't help that, but you can decide what the headline will say. As it stands now you know darned well what it will say. What if, instead of that, it announces that you have engaged Nero Wolfe to investigate the murder of the guest on your programme because of your passionate desire to see justice done? The piece would explain the terms of the arrangement: you are to pay the expenses of the investigation-unpadded, we don't pad expenses-and that's all you are to pay unless Mr Wolfe gets the murderer with evidence to convict. If he comes through you pay him a fee of twenty thousand dollars. Would that get the headline or not? What kind of publicity would it be, still out of the wrong barrel? What percentage of your audience and the general public would it persuade, not only that you and yours are innocent, but that you are a hero to sacrifice a fortune for the sake of justice? Ninety-nine and one-half per cent. Very few of them would stop to consider that both the expenses and the fee will be deductible on your income tax and, in your bracket, the actual cost to you would be around four thousand dollars, no more. In the public mind you would no longer be one of the suspects in a sensational murder case, being hunted-you would be a champion of the people, hunting a murderer.”

I spread out my hands. “And you would get all that, Miss Fraser, even if Mr Wolfe had the worst flop of his career and all it cost you was expenses. Nobody could say you hadn't tried. It's a big bargain for you. Mr Wolfe almost never takes a case on a contingent basis, but when he needs money he breaks rules, especially his own.”

Madeline Fraser had closed her eyes. Now she opened them again, and again her smile was just from her to me. “The way you tell it,” she said, “is certainly a bargain. What do you think, Debby?”

“I think I like it,” Miss Koppel said cautiously. “It would have to be discussed with the network and agencies and sponsors.”

“Mr Goodwin.”

I turned my head. “Yes, Mr Strong?”

Tully Strong had removed his spectacles and was blinking at me. “You understand that I am only the secretary of the Council of the sponsors of Miss Fraser's programme, and I have no real authority. But I know how they feel about this, two of them in particular, and of course it is my duty to report this conversation to them without delay, and I can tell you off the record that it is extremely probable they would prefer to accept Mr Wolfe's offer on their own account. For the impression on the public I think they would consider it desirable that Mr Wolfe should be paid by them-on the terms stated by you. Still off the record, I believe this would apply especially to the makers of Starlite.

That's the bottled drink the poison was put into.”

“Yeah, I know it is.” I looked around at the four faces. “I’m sort of in a hole.

I hoped to close a deal with Miss Fraser before I left here, but Miss Koppel says it has to be discussed with others, and now Mr Strong thinks the sponsors may want to take it over. The trouble is the delay. It's already six days old, and Mr Wolfe should get to work at once. Tonight if possible, tomorrow at the latest.”

“Not to mention,” Bill Meadows said, smiling at me, “that he has to get ahead of the cops and keep ahead if he wants to collect. It seems to me-Hello, Elinor!”

He left his chair in a hurry. “How about it?”

The girl who had entered without announcement tossed him a nod and a word and came towards the bed with rapid steps. I say girl because, although according to the newspapers Elinor Vance already had under her belt a Smith diploma, a play written and nearly produced, and two years as script writer for the Madeline Fraser programme, she looked as if she had at least eight years to go to reach my deadline. As she crossed to us the thought struck me how few there are who still look attractive even when they're obviously way behind on sleep and played out to the point where they're about ready to drop.

“I’m sorry to be so late, Lina,” she said all in a breath, “but they kept me down there all day, at the District Attorney's office…I couldn't make them understand…they're terrible, those men are…”

She stopped, and her body started to shake all over.

“Goddam it,” Bill Meadows said savagely. “I'll get you a drink.”

“I'm already getting it, Bill,” Tully Strong called from a side of the room.

“Flop here on the bed,” Miss Fraser said, getting her feet out of the way.

“It's nearly five o'clock.” It was Miss Koppel's quiet, determined voice. “We're going to start to work right now or I'll phone and cancel tomorrow's broadcast.”

I stood up, facing Madeline Fraser, looking down at her. “What about it? Can this be settled tonight?”

“I don't see how.” She was stroking Elinor Vance's shoulder. With a broadcast to get up, and people to consult…”

“Then tomorrow morning?”

Tully Strong, approaching with the drink for Elinor Vance, handed it to her and then spoke to me: “I'll phone you tomorrow, before noon if possible,”

“Good for you,” I told him, and beat it.

Chapter Four

Without at all intending to, I certainly had turned it into a seller's market.

The only development that Monday evening came not from the prospective customers, but from Inspector Cramer of Homicide, in the form of a phone call just before Fritz summoned Wolfe and me to dinner. It was nothing shattering.

Cramer merely asked to speak to Wolfe, and asked him: “Who's paying you on the Orchard case?”

“No one,” Wolfe said curtly.

“No? Then Goodwin drives your car up to Seventy-eighth Street just to test the tyres?”

“It's my car, Mr Cramer, and I help to pay for the streets.”

It ended in a stalemate, and Wolfe and I moved across the hall to the dining-room, to eat fried shrimps and Cape Cod clam cakes. With those items Fritz serves a sour sauce thick with mushrooms which is habit-forming.

Tuesday morning the fun began, with the first phone call arriving before Wolfe got down to the office. Of course that didn't mean sunup, since his morning hours upstairs with ineodore and the orchids are always and forever from nine to eleven. First was Richards of the Federal Broadcasting Company. It is left to my discretion whether to buzz the plant rooms or not, and this seemed to call for it, since Richards had done us a favour the day before. When I got him through to Wolfe it appeared that what he wanted was to introduce another F.B.C. vice-president, a Mr Beech. What Mr Beech wanted was to ask why the hell Wolfe hadn't gone straight to the F.B.C. with his suggestion about murder, though he didn't put it that way. He was very affable. The impression I got, listening in as instructed, was that the network had had its tongue hanging out for years, waiting and hoping for an excuse to hand Wolfe a hunk of dough. Wolfe was polite to him but didn't actually apologize.

Second was Tully Strong, the secretary of the Sponsors' Council, and I conversed with him myself. He strongly hoped that we had made no commitment with Miss Fraser or the network of anyone else because, as he had surmised, some of the sponsors were interested and one of them was excited. That one, he told me off the record, was the Starlite Company, which, since the poison had been served to the victim in a bottle of Starlite, The Drink You Dream Of, would fight for its exclusive right to take Wolfe up. I told him I would refer it to Wolfe without prejudice when he came down at eleven o'clock.