Champagne For One by Rex Stout
If it hadn’t been raining and blowing that raw Tuesday morning in March I would have been out, walking to the bank to deposit a couple of cheques, when Austin Byne phoned me, and he might have tried somebody else. But more likely not. He would probably have rung again later, so I can’t blame all this on the weather. As it was, I was there in the office, oiling the typewriter and the two Marley.38’s, for which we had permits, from the same can of oil, when the phone rang and I lifted it and spoke.
“Nero Wolfe’s office, Archie Goodwin speaking.”
“Hello there. This is Byne. Dinky Byne.”
There it is in print for you, but it wasn’t for me, and I didn’t get it. It sounded more like a dying bullfrog than a man.
“Clear your throat,” I suggested, “or sneeze or something, and try again.”
“That wouldn’t help. My tubes are all clogged. Tubes. Clogged. Understand? Dinky Byne – B-Y-N-E.”
“Oh, hallo. I won’t ask how you are, hearing how you sound. My sympathy.”
“I need it. I need more than sympathy, too.” It was coming through slightly better. “I need help. Will you do me a hell of a favour?”
I made a face. “I might. If I can do it sitting down and it doesn’t cost me any teeth.”
“It won’t cost you a thing. You know my Aunt Louise. Mrs Robert Robilotti.”
“Only professionally. Mr Wolfe did a job for her once, recovered some jewellery. That is, she hired him and I did the job – and she didn’t like me. She resented a remark I made.”
“That won’t matter. She forgets remarks. I suppose you know about the dinner party she gives every year on the birthday date of my Uncle Albert, now resting in peace perhaps?”
“Sure. Who doesn’t?”
“Well, that’s it. Today. Seven o’clock. And I’m to be one of the chevaliers, and listen to me, and I’ve got some fever. I can’t go. She’ll be sore as the devil if she has to scout around for a fill-in, and when I phone her I want to tell her she won’t have to, that I’ve already got one. Mr Archie Goodwin. You’re a better chevalier than me any day. She knows you, and she has forgotten the remark you made, and anyhow she has resented a hundred remarks I’ve made, and you’ll know exactly how to treat the lady guests. Black tie, seven o’clock, and you know the address. After I phone her, of course she’ll ring you to confirm it. And you can do it sitting down, and I’ll guarantee nothing will be served that will break your teeth. She has a good cook. My God, I didn’t think I could talk so long. How about it, Archie?”
“I’m chewing on it,” I told him.” You waited long enough.”
“Yeah, I know, but I kept thinking I might be able to make it, until I pried my eyes open this morning. I’ll do the same for you some day.”
“You can’t. I haven’t got a billionaire aunt. I doubt if she has forgotten the remark I made because it was fairly sharp. What if she vetoes me? You’d have to ring me again to call it off, and then ring someone else, and you shouldn’t talk that much, and besides, my feelings would be hurt.”
I was merely stalling, partly because I wanted to hear him talk some more. It sounded to me as if his croak had flaws in it. Clogged tubes have no effect on your eases, as in “seven” and “sitting”, but he was trying to produce one, and he turned “long” into “lawd” when it should have been more like “lawg”. So I was suspecting that the croak was a phoney.