A new detective novel to be serialized over the next few months.
Chapter 1: Which Contains Bean Sprouts and Spanakopita.
“IF A THING is lost,” I said, flicking the bean sprouts out of my hair with an easy self-confidence, “then the thing to do is to find it.”
“You agree, then?” She tossed another bowl of bean sprouts at my head, but I ducked and this one missed.
“On my usual terms,” I agreed. “Fifty per cent up front, fifty per cent after thirty days, and fifty per cent when the job is complete.”
She thought about that for a moment, and then lobbed a final bowl of bean sprouts in my direction. It missed me again. “That is acceptable,” she declared. “But remember this: the next time you serve me vegetables, I expect them to be fully grown vegetables.”
With that, she turned on her heel—which is rather a neat trick in high heels; you should try it some time—and left me.
She left me with so many questions. What did she really want from me? Why the pathological aversion to sprouts? What was her name? Where would I send the bill? I realized that I ought to have asked some of these questions before she left, but now it was too late.
Nevertheless, I had a job: that much was clear. I called my secretary to clean up the bean sprouts; but no one answered, and I recalled ruefully that I had no secretary. So I left them where they were. Perhaps they would root in the carpet and grow into beans.
Now that I had a job, the first thing to do was to make a note of it in my memorandum book, since it was after all a thing to be remembered. I pulled the tattered notebook from my pocket, arranged the tatters in order, and wrote on the first blank page:
Job no. 103
(I had begun numbering my jobs at 101.)
Description: Locate missing case
Remarks: Case described as containing $35,462,817.98 in cash. Client states that case was left to her by her beloved great-uncle & thus has sentimental value.
Now that I had made my official memorandum, it was time to get to work.
The first thing I did was to call the Hagia Sophia Diner. I asked Ludmilla to look in the lost-and-found box, because that’s where things always seem to turn up when I lose them. But no luck: there was no case in there with $35,462,817.98 in cash in it. All she found was a large bag with two million in it, and that in negotiable bonds, not in cash. Ludmilla said I could have it if I wanted it, but I told her to put it back in the box. What good would it do me? I knew my client couldn’t be fooled that easily.
Well, that was it, then. I was out of ideas. —Not quite completely: I did have the really inspired idea of ordering a spanakopita to go while I was on the phone. But other than that, I came up blank. I sighed, put on my hat, and headed for the Hagia Sophia to pick up my spanakopita.
“You need more protein than that,” Ludmilla said when she was ringing up my order.
“Let’s get one thing straight,” I told her. “What I need and what I want are two different things.”
“Suit yourself” was her witty rejoinder. “But if I were you, I’d add one of our lamb shakes to your order, or maybe some liver spice cake for dessert.”
I thanked her for her advice, but I didn’t change my order. I’d had liver spice cake for breakfast.
While I sat on a bench in the park and ate my spanakopita, my keen eye continued to scour the landscape for clues. But it was just an ordinary day at the park. Over on the green, a few Parthians were playing cricket. Up the street a bit, a taxi stopped to let out a woman with a small wallaby on a leash. On the playground, two third-graders were trying to sell each other insurance. The only remotely unusual thing I saw was one suspicious-looking character hanging around in the park.
He was dressed in a dark suit, with a matching bowler and umbrella—rather unusual garb for an afternoon at the park in my city. But what really made me suspicious was the way he was standing five feet in front of me and saying “Excuse me, sir” over and over again in a louder and louder voice.
“Were you talking to me?” I demanded at last.
“Yes, sir,” the man said.
“Well, spill it, then. What’s on your mind?”
He cleared his throat. “Please pardon this intrusion, sir, but my employer, Dr. Henricus Albertus Boli, would like a few words with you.”
“Wouldn’t everybody?” I laughed a professional laugh that did not involve my steely eyes. “But what’s it worth to me?”
“Dr. Boli has been given to understand that you have been retained by the Countess Tatiana von Sturzhelm y Sombrero on a question involving a certain case that she seems to have misplaced.”
“What’s it to you?” Never give anything away: that’s my policy.
“If you do not mind accompanying me, sir, Dr. Boli has certain information to impart which he believes you may find material in your search.”
“What sort of information?” I asked suspiciously. It pays to be suspicious. I have that motto framed behind my desk.
“Information,” the man explained, “which Dr. Boli believes you may find material in your search.”
Well, that was more like it. “Okay, I’ll go with you, as long as you’re paying for the bus.”
“If you don’t mind, sir, it might be more expeditious to use Dr. Boli’s car, which he has sent with me for that purpose.”
“Lead the way, then.” I stood up from my bench.
“I have taken the liberty of summoning the driver already, sir.”
Just as he finished saying that, the biggest limousine I’d ever seen rolled up to the curb. It looked like someone had taken an ordinary limousine and tied the ends to two freight trains pulling in opposite directions.
“Some car the old man’s got,” I remarked with a little less indifference than I usually try to project.
“I beg your pardon?” The man in the bowler saw what I was looking at and almost smiled. “Oh, no, sir, that is not Dr. Boli’s car. Dr. Boli prefers to be more discreet.”
The light changed, and the big limousine drove on.
“Here is Dr. Boli’s car now, sir.”
I looked down the street and saw the front of a Lincoln from the late 1930s. The grille passed us, and then for a long time there was nothing but hood. At last a window came, and I could see some sort of driver inside. Then more windows, and finally there was a door in front of us just as the car rolled to a stop. The man in the bowler opened the door for me and seemed to expect me to get in.
I think the car was even bigger on the inside. The seat I sat in was really more of an easy chair, and it had a sort of built-in reading lamp behind it. Along the side wall of the car, under the windows, were rows of old books behind glass.
“This is discreet?” I asked.
“Dr. Boli generally finds that people do not notice this car unless it is pointed out to them.”
“I see,” I said. I didn’t see, but I wanted him to think I saw.
We drove through Banksville, Beechview, Bellevue, Blawnox, Bloomfield, Bon Air, and Brookline, all in alphabetical order. At last we came to what I thought must be some university campus, with great big stone buildings covered with Boston ivy.
“Here we are,” said the man with the bowler. “This is Dr. Boli’s town house.”
“Are you sure it isn’t his town?” I remarked with my trademark rapier wit.
“Quite sure,” the man in the bowler said. “Dr. Boli’s country house appears as a city on county planning maps, but his town house has no separate municipal status.”
“Oh,” I said. There didn’t seem to be much else to say.
The car stopped in front of the main building. The door of the car opened, and I was obviously expected to get out. So I did. You can’t say I don’t do what’s expected of me.
“Dr. Boli will meet us in the library,” the bowler man said, “if you would care to follow me, sir.”
I followed him up the marble steps, under a forest of columns, and through a pair of giant doors with all kinds of carvings on them. Then I had to stop and let my eyes adjust to the light inside. When I had done that, I had to stop a little more and let my brain adjust to what my eyes were seeing.
Proceed to Chapter 2.