Wolfe's eyes swept the semi-circle, starting at Miss Fraser's end. “You are going to find this tiresome,” he said conversationally, “because I'm just starting on this and so shall have to cover details that you're sick of hearing and talking about. All the information I have has come from newspapers, and therefore much of it is doubtless inaccurate and some of it false. How much you'll have to correct me on I don't know.”
“It depends a lot,” said Nathan Traub with a smile, “on which paper you read.”
Traub, the agency man, was the only one of the six I hadn't seen before, having only heard his smooth low-pitched voice on the phone, when he had practically told me that everything had to be cleared through him. He was much younger than I had expected, around my age, but otherwise he was no great surprise. The chief difference between any two advertising executives is that one goes to buy a suit at Brcoks Brothers in the morning and the other one goes in the afternoon. It depends on the conference schedule. The suit this Traub had bought was a double-breasted grey which went very well with his dark hair and the healthy colour of his cheeks.
“I have read them all.” Wolfe's eyes went from left to right again. “I did so when I decided I wanted a job on this case. By the way, I assume you all know who has hired me, and for what?”
There were nods. “We know all about it,” Bill Meadows said.
“Good. Then you know why the presence of Mr Anderson, Mr Owen, and Mr Beech is being tolerated. With them here, and of course Miss Fraser, ninety-five per cent of the clients' interest is represented. The only one absent is White Birch Soap.”
They're not absent.” Nathan Traub was politely indignant. “I can speak for them.”
“I'd rather you'd speak for yourself,” Wolfe retorted. “The clients are here to listen, not speak.” He rested his elbows on the arms of his chair and put the tips of his thumbs together. With the gate-crashers put in their places, he went on: “As for you, ladies and gentlemen, this would be much more interesting and stimulating for you if I could begin by saying that my job is to learn which one of you is guilty of murder-and to prove it. Unfortunatelv we can't have that fillip, since two of the eight - Miss Shepherd and Mr Savarese-didn't come. I am told that Mr Savarese had an engagement, and there is a certain reluctance about Miss Shepherd that I would like to know more about.”
“She's a noisy little chatterbox.” From Tully Strong, who had removed his spectacles and was gazing at Wolfe with an intent frown.
“She's a pain in the neck.” From Bill Meadows.
Everybody smiled, some nervously, some apparently meaning it.
“I didn't try to get her,” Deborah Koppel said. “She wouldn't have come unless Miss Fraser herself had asked her, and I didn't think that was necessary. She hates all the rest of us.”
“Because she thinks we keep her away from Miss Fraser.”
“Yes. We try to.”
“Not from me too, I hope.” Wolfe sighed down to where a strip of his yellow shirt divided his vest from his trousers, and curled his palms and fingers over the ends of his chair arms. “Now. Let's get at this. Usually when I talk I dislike interruptions, but this is an exception. If you disagree with anything I say, or think me in error, say so at once. With that understood: “Frequently, twice a week or oftener, you consider the problem of guests for Miss Fraser's programme. It is in fact a problem, because you want interesting people, famous ones if possible, but they must be willing to submit to the indignity of lending their presence, and their assent by silence, if nothing more, to the preposterous statements made by Miss Fraser and Mr Meadows regarding the products they advertise. Recently-”
“What's undignified about it?”
“There are no preposterous statements!”
“What's this got to do with what we're paying you for?”
You disagree.” Wolfe was unruffled. “I asked for it. Archie, p include it in your notes that Mr Traub and Mr Strong disagree. You may ignore Mr Owen's protest, since my invitation to interrupt did not extend to him.”
He took in the semi-circle again. “Recently a suggestion was made that you corral, as a guest, a man who sells tips on horse races. I understand that your memories differ as to when that suggestion was first made.”
Madeline Fraser said: “It's been discussed off and on for over a year.”
“I've always been dead against it,” Tully Strong asserted.
Deborah Koppel smiled. “Mr Strong thought it would be improper. He thinks the programme should never offend anybody, which is impossible. Anything and everything offends somebody.”
“What changed your mind, Mr Strong?”
“Two things,” said the secretary of the Sponsors' Council. “First, we got the idea of having the audience vote on it-the air audience-and out of over fourteen thousand letters ninety-two point six per cent were in favour. Second, one of the letters was from an assistant professor of mathematics at Columbia University, suggesting that the second guest on the programme should be him, or some other professor who could speak as an expert on the law of averages. That gave it a different slant entirely, and I was for it. Nat Traub, for the agency, was still against it.”
“And I still am,” Traub declared. “Can you blame me?”
“So,” Wolfe asked Strong, “Mr Traub was a minority of one?”
That's right. We went ahead. Miss Vance, who does research for the programme in addition to writing scripts, got up a list of prospects. I was surprised to find, and the others were too, that more than thirty tip sheets of various kinds are published in New York alone. We boiled it down to five and they were contacted.”
I should have warned them that the use of contact as a verb was not permitted in that office. Now Wolfe would have it in for him.
Wolfe frowned. “All five were invited?”
“Oh, no. Appointments were made for them to see Miss Fraser-the publishers of them. She had to find out which one was most likely to go over on the air and not pull something that would hurt the programme. The final choice was left to her.”
“How were the five selected?”
“Scientifically. The length of time they had been in business, the quality of paper and printing of the sheets, the opinions of sports writers, things like that.”
“Who was the scientist? You?”
“No…I don't know…”
“I was,” a firm, quiet voice stated. It was Elinor Vance. I had put her in the chair nearest mine because Wolfe isn't the only one who likes to have things around that he enjoys looking at. Obviously she hadn't caught up on sleep yet, and ever so often she had to clamp her teeth to keep her chin from quivering, but she was the only one there who could conceivably have made me remember that I was not primarily a detective, but a man. I was curious how her brown eyes would look if and when they got fun in them again some day. She was going on: “First I took out those that were plainly impossible, more than half of them, and then I talked it over with Miss Koppel and Mr Meadows, and I think one or two others-I guess Mr Strong-yes, I'm sure I did-but it was me more than them. I picked the five names.”
“And they all came to see Miss Fraser?”
“Four of them did. One of them was out of town-in Florida.”
Wolfe's gaze went to the left. “And you, Miss Fraser, chose Mr Cyril Orchard from these four?”
She nodded. “Yes.”
“How did you do that? Scientifically?”
“No.” She smiled. “There's nothing scientific about me. He seemed fairly intelligent, and he had much the best voice of the four and was the best talker, and I liked the name of his sheet, Track Almanac-and then I guess I was a little snobbish about it too. His sheet was the most expensive-ten dollars a week.”
“Those were the considerations that led you to select him?”