(Continuing the narrative which began here.)
Chapter 9: In Which Seamus O’Really Reveals Some Surprising Facts About Mr. Harding.
THAT ADDRESS WAS all I had to hear. I was ready to go just about anywhere with Seamus O’Really, or any other random stranger, if there was any chance of finding more about this Harding character—like maybe his ATM card. It also entered into my calculations that it would take me a bus, a subway, and an incline to get to No. 400 Breckenridge Avenue, whereas O’Really had his own car.
O’Really’s car was a cheap Korean hatchback not much different from the one we’d found Harding in. It was filled with maps, notebooks, and stray newspaper clippings. I had to pick up one of the clippings to sit on the passenger seat, and the headline caught my attention:
LOCAL WIDOW REPORTS THEFT OF $35,462,817.98
At first I was surprised to see that the Countess had reported the theft. I thought she had hired me to spare herself the indignity of becoming front-page news.
But the details in the story didn’t add up. As I scanned down the paragraphs, it became more and more clear that the victim of this theft was a completely different woman, and that the theft had happened (according to the scribbled date on the clipping) more than a year ago. But how many women lose exactly $35,462,817.98?
“I see one of my clippings has caught your attention,” O’Really remarked as he fumbled with his seatbelt. “’Tis a subject to which I’ve been devoting some attention, you might say. By the way, would you care for a peppermint?”
“No, thank you,” I replied, taking pity on his fumbling.
He continued to fumble. “I’ll have one, if you don’t mind. Peppermint makes the world sunnier. Peppermint is my great joy in life, and my only weakness. “’Twas peppermint that cost me my position in the service of Mr. Von Schmaltz, and peppermint that consoled me for the loss.” By now he had managed to extract a peppermint from the tin and was busily fumbling it back into his pocket.
“You were fired for eating peppermint?”
“Well, that and the fact that I was accused of stealing $35,462,817.98 from his cash on hand. More the latter than the former, I suppose. Still, the subject of the peppermint did come up. He definitely did mention the awful stench of peppermint everywhere I went—I believe that was how he put it. Yes. ‘Awful stench of peppermint.’ His exact words. But it was really more about the money.”
I glanced down at the clipping in my hand, but the name of the victim was definitely not Von Schmaltz. This was very odd. Could there have been three thefts of $35,462,817.98?
“And did you steal the money?” I asked tactfully.
O’Really had fumbled the tin back into his pocket and now resumed fumbling with the seatbelt with both hands. “No, I did not. If I had, I should not be driving myself around in this serviceable but poorly equipped automobile, and I should not be fetching my own peppermints. My theory was that the money had been missing for some time before the loss was discovered. I had been in the employ of Mr. Von Schmaltz for only a short time—five months and a week, to be fairly precise about it. Before that, her secretary had been a man named Harding.” He snapped his seatbelt shut with a triumphant flourish. “There we are. ’Tis just a matter of showing them you take the matter seriously.”
“Do you mean the same Harding who—”
“I believe I do mean the same Harding, yes,” he said as he started the car. “You might care to have a look into some of my notebooks as we go. But permit me to give you a summary of what I believe I have discovered over the course of my research. When I began to suspect that it was Mr. Harding who had taken the $35,462,817.98, I commenced some inquiries into his employment history. I compared his curriculum vitae with the archives of the Dispatch and the Sun-Telly, and I noticed an interesting pattern.”
O’Really was now driving carefully along Lysle Boulevard at about twenty miles per hour. Since he wasn’t saying anything, I assumed he was waiting for me to react. I waited for a while, but I finally did ask.
“And what was the pattern?”
“Aha!” During the long silence, we had inched our way across the Mansfield Bridge and were now beginning the slow climb up the hill on the other side. “’Tis a fascinating question you’re asking. What I found was that Mr. Harding had a history of short employments; that much I was able to determine without much effort. When I looked into the archives of the papers, I discovered this interesting correlation: some time after Mr. Harding left, each one of his employers reported the loss or theft of $35,462,817.98 in cash. Altogether, thirteen different people have been known to employ Mr. Harding, and twelve of them have reported thefts of exactly the same amount.”
“That’s a very strange crime,” I said. We were still crawling up the hill, now at a rate of about fifteen miles per hour, and I had begun to wonder whether I wouldn’t get there faster if I walked. “Why would somebody bother to steal precisely the same amount from every victim, rather than just taking all he could get his hands on?”
“Yes, I did wonder that, too,” O’Really answered. “And then I recalled a conversation I once had in the Club with Mr. Harding—by which of course I mean Mr. Higgins. Unlike ourselves, you see, Mr. Higgins—by which of course I mean Mr. Harding—was not a true amanuensis by calling. He was dissatisfied with such employment and considered it beneath him. He told me once that he had calculated the exact amount it would take to permit him to live the life he considered suitable, and the figure had come to $425,553,815.80. And then I saw the connection.”
He was silent again, waiting for me to ask the question. It annoyed me. I bore it for quite a while, counting the cars, trucks, tricycles, and strollers as they whizzed past us. Finally I had to ask:
“And what was the connection?”
“I believe that Mr. Harding decided to fulfill his life’s ambition by accumulating $425,553,815.80. But the theft of such a large amount of money would be sure to attract unwanted attention. I believe, therefore, that Mr. Harding simplified the matter by dividing his scheme for the acquisition of the money into twelve steps, thus dividing the money to be acquired into twelve equal parts. These smaller and more manageable sums could disappear without attracting too much notice.”
“But what happened to all that money? I mean, that’s getting up around half a billion. That kind of money usually makes a lot of noise. Where did it all go?”
By now we had nearly reached the crest of the hill, and I was hoping that we might accelerate a little bit on the other side.
“As for that,” O’Really said as we went over the top, “I honestly can’t say. Perhaps we shall know more when we get to No. 400 Breckenridge Avenue.”
We began hurtling down the other side of the hill at the breakneck speed of twenty-three.
“If that ever happens,” I muttered under my breath.
Suddenly O’Really slammed on the brakes and pulled over onto the shoulder. I was afraid he had heard my mumbling and been offended, but then I saw that he was fumbling in his pocket.
“’Tis time for another peppermint,” he announced. “Would you like one, by the way?”
Proceed to Chapter 10.