(Continuing the narrative which began here.)
Chapter 4: In Which I Am a Member of the Amanuenses’ Club
A VALET GREETED us in front of the club. “Good evening, Mr. Higgins,” he said as we got out of the tiny Bantam. I thought at first that he was talking to me, since my name was supposed to be Higgins now, but he seemed to be talking to the bowler man instead. The same thing happened inside: a liveried attendant met us at the door and quite clearly greeted the bowler man as “Mr. Higgins.”
As we walked through the walnut-paneled foyer, I turned to the bowler man.
“Did he say your name was Higgins?” I asked.
“Yes, he did.”
“But didn’t you say my name was supposed to be Higgins?”
“Yes, Mr. Higgins.”
“Well, why on earth did you give me your name?”
“Every member of the Amanuenses’ Club is named Higgins, Mr. Higgins. It spares us a certain amount of confusion.”
“So that fellow who met us at the door was named Higgins, too?”
“No, Mr. Higgins.”
“But I thought you said—”
“He is an employee, Mr. Higgins, not a member. Employees are not named Higgins.”
“I see. So what was his name, just out of curiosity?”
“Yes, Mr. Higgins. Employees are named Wiggins.” By this time we had entered a long walnut-paneled hallway, at the end of which was a tastefully elaborate door. “Now, Mr. Higgins, we are about to pass through the club reading room, and I should warn you that talking is prohibited, as indeed is noise of any sort.”
“So I shouldn’t say anything or stamp my feet too loud or anything like that?”
“You will not be able to, Mr. Higgins. The prohibition is enforced very strictly.” He opened the door and held it for me to enter. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to, but I did.
The room was just as walnutty as the rest of the building. Hundreds of newspapers in all languages hung from long dowels, and a few men in dark suits were reading some of them.
I suddenly noticed that my new shoes were making no sound at all on the walnut floor. They had been clattering as noisily as the bowler man’s in the hallway, but now I couldn’t hear a sound from either of us. I stamped my foot: still nothing. I did an improvised tap dance: not a sound. I turned to the bowler man to ask him what was going on, but I couldn’t hear my own voice, even though my mouth was forming words and I could feel vibrations in my throat. All the time, the newspaper readers kept reading, paying no attention to me at all.
Finally—and it couldn’t happen soon enough for me—we reached the end of the room and went through another door. I heard it close behind me, and I heard the very welcome clatter of my own shoes on the floor.
“Here we are, Mr. Higgins,” the bowler man announced. “Mr. Higgins has promised to meet us here. Mr. Higgins is the club vice-president, and he may be able to tell you something about Mr. Higgins, the Countess von Sturzhelm y Sombrero’s missing secretary.”
“I thought you said his name was Harding.”
“In the club his name is Higgins.”
Of course I had known that, but I must have forgotten it for a moment.
“Higgins, old man!” came a voice from the left. I turned and saw a gentleman in a dark suit entering by a side door.
The bowler man looked almost cheerful. “How are you, Mr. Higgins?” he said as the two Higginses shook hands. “Allow me to present Mr. Higgins, our newest member.”
Mr. Higgins extended his hand, and I shook it. “A great pleasure to meet you, Mr. Higgins,” he said, “and an even greater pleasure to welcome you to our club.”
“The pleasure is all mine, I assure you, Mr. Higgins.” Was that really my voice speaking those words?
“Well, I shan’t waste your time, Mr. Higgins,” said Mr. Higgins. “Mr. Higgins here tells me that you have expressed some concern over the apparent disappearance of Mr. Higgins, lately in the employ of the Countess Tatiana von Sturzhelm y Sombrero. I believe I may be able to render some slight assistance.
“Thank you, Mr. Higgins,” I replied to Mr. Higgins. “Mr. Higgins believes that Mr. Higgins may be involved in a small matter that concerns me.”
“Mr. Higgins is being too charitable, Mr. Higgins,” said Mr. Higgins. “The fact is that Mr. Higgins and I suspect that Mr. Higgins may have been involved in a crime of a particularly shameful sort.”
“That is a grave matter,” Mr. Higgins said gravely. “Perhaps the club president ought to be informed.”
“I agree,” Mr. Higgins replied. “I think Mr. Higgins ought to know.”
Mr. Higgins turned to me. “Well then, Mr. Higgins,” he said, “under these unusual circumstances, it would be appropriate that we consult the archives.” He stepped over to the wall and picked up a telephone handset. “Wiggins? Higgins here. I shall be bringing Mr. Higgins and Mr. Higgins to the archives to find some information on Mr. Higgins. Could you have Mr. Wiggins meet us there? Thank you.”
The archives were in a walnut paneled room at the end of another walnut-paneled hallway. The walls were lined with walnut file cabinets, each drawer bearing a label with the letter H on it. There must have been about a hundred H drawers in all. A small man in eighteenth-century livery was standing at attention in the center of the room, where there was a large reading desk and a pair of walnut chairs.
“Wiggins,” said Mr. Higgins, “could you please pull the file on Mr. Higgins?”
With a slight nod, Wiggins turned and marched to a drawer labeled “H.” He pulled it out about five feet, reached in near the back, and retrieved a file marked “HIGGINS.”
“Thank you, Wiggins,” said Mr. Higgins. He opened the file, and Mr. Higgins and I examined the contents.
“As you can see,” said Mr. Higgins, “we keep a considerable amount of information on each of our members. Naturally, we use this information to give all our members the comprehensive service they expect. For example, in the case of Mr. Higgins, we can see that his favorite color is red, and that he prefers his red in the burgundy range.”
We were looking at a single dark red sheet of paper on which the word “Higgins” was printed in large white letters.
“Now here,” Mr. Higgins continued, “is some information that may be of even more use to you. These are Mr. Higgins’ dietary requirements. As you can see, Mr. Higgins has a rare condition called DIS, or Dumpling Insufficiency Syndrome. His body cannot retain starch in sufficient quantities. He requires, therefore, a steady input of pierogies to survive. This requirement naturally limits his range of activity: he can survive only where pierogies are easily obtained in quantity.”
“Well, how many places are there like that?” I asked.
Here Mr. Higgins spoke up. “This club is one such place, of course: the members expect that all such needs will be met without fail. There are also certain Eastern European churches in the city well known for their pierogies, but only on certain days of the week. Aside, therefore, from this club, the only reliable sources are the drive-through pierogi parlors, and according to the file” (he indicated one sheet in particular) “Mr. Higgins’ favorite is the Pierogi Palace in Esplen.”
“That might indeed be useful information,” I said.
“At least,” said Mr. Higgins, “it gives us an approximate location for Mr. Higgins. If this information is correct (and the club archives have never been known to be wrong), then Mr. Higgins must be somewhere within a five-minute radius of Esplen.”
“Then perhaps, mr. Higgins,” Mr. Higgins said to me, “we ought to pay a visit to Esplen.”
“I agree,” I agreed. “And rather quickly, if we are to have a chance of apprehending Mr. Higgins.” Boy, there was something about this place that sure made me talk funny.
“Well, then,” said Mr. Higgins, “I am very glad to have been of service. —That will be all, Wiggins. Thank you. —Remember, Mr. Higgins, that the club archives are always at your disposal. I do hope that you and Mr. Higgins will be able to bring this unfortunate matter to a speedy conclusion.”
We thanked him, and Wiggins as well, and left to investigate the Pierogi Palace.
As we waited for Wiggins the valet to bring the Bantam, I asked Mr. Higgins a question that had been preying on my mind.
“So, if you don’t mind my asking, what’s your real name?”
“Higgins, sir,” he answered.
“No, I mean outside the club.”
“You mean your real name is Higgins?”
“Yes, sir,” he said. “A peculiar coincidence, sir.”
Here the Bantam arrived, and we squeezed ourselves into it and set off for Esplen.
Proceed to Chapter 5.