(Continuing the narrative which began here.)

Chapter 10: In Which I Visit the Apartment of Mr. Harding and See a Great Deal of the Color Burgundy.


IT TOOK US a good two hours—no, let me begin again. It took us at least two hours, which were not at all good, to reach Breckenridge Avenue, which is on the back side of Mount Washington. By that time it was dark outside. Number 400 turned out to be a four-storey apartment block in what I call the Trickle-Down International Style, which is to say that the builder who put it up in the 1950s had absorbed just enough of the International Style to know that he was no longer required to make it look attractive. It was just a brick box with the corner windows typical of the style. It did, however, have one distinction: even in the sodium-vapor streetlights, I could see that the bricks had been painted dark red. That would have appealed to Mr. Harding.

“And now,” O’Really said as we finally drifted to a stop beside the curb, “we are presented with a problem.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“The problem of getting in. ’Tis a simple matter to slip into the Harding apartment once we’re in the building, but getting in through the front door may be a bit harder. What I call a two-peppermint problem.” He fumbled for his peppermint tin.

“Someone will buzz us in,” I told him.

“Really?” He was so genuinely surprised by my confidence that he stopped his fumbling for a moment. “Do you know someone here?”

“No, but someone will buzz us in.” I stepped out of the little car, grateful for the chance to stretch my legs after the long journey. I walked briskly and confidently to the front door of the building, with O’Really following me a good bit less confidently, and still fumbling for his peppermints.

Inside the first pair of glass doors was a vestibule with two columns of buttons on the left wall. They were all labeled with numbers and names; I noticed that Harding was listed in Room 305. Then I quickly pushed all the buttons in sequence.

A chorus of voices began to pour out of the loudspeaker. I waited until I had heard quite a few; then I bellowed “Pizza!” into the machine. A number of objections came back: “I didn’t order a pizza,” “You must have the wrong apartment,” and so on. But meanwhile the buzzer sounded and I opened the door.

“At this time of the evening,” I told O’Really as we stepped inside, “somebody’s always ordered pizza.”

“Extraordinary,” O’Really said with a show of admiration. “You’re really more like a private detective than a private secretary.”

“You learn different things from different employers,” I answered, keeping it vague enough that I didn’t have to remember a story.

“I suppose so,” O’Really said. “Mr. Harding’s apartment is number 305, I believe. Would you care for a peppermint?”

I politely declined.

There was no elevator, so we went up the steps. The place was quiet. On the second floor, we passed a young man in the hall who was fidgeting with a $20 bill, but we paid no attention to him, and he paid no attention to two men who were obviously not carrying a pizza.

There were six apartments on each floor; Harding’s was one of the corner apartments, with its door at the end of the hall.

“Leave this to me, good sir,” O’Really said; and with a quick flourish of a credit card, he had the door unlocked. “As you say, you learn different things from different employers.”

As soon as we opened the door, a huge crashing wave of burgundy smashed into my eyeballs and almost knocked me off my feet. I could hardly push my way through all the burgundy into the apartment. It was like a burgundy blizzard, the kind of blizzard that covers everything in such a monstrous sameness that you lose track of which way is up.

Eventually, as my eyes began to adjust, I started to distinguish slightly different shades of burgundy, and the different shades resolved themselves into different shapes, and the different shapes resolved themselves into walls and floors and pieces of furniture. I sat down on a burgundy sofa or coffee table or something to get my bearings for a bit.

“’Twould appear,” O’Really remarked, “that Mr. Harding’s preference for burgundy was more a religion than a simple aesthetic predilection.”

“I guess,” I responded. I picked up a glossy magazine beside me, but since the words were printed in burgundy ink on glossy burgundy paper, there was no point in trying to read it.

“So far,” said O’Really, who apparently was having less trouble adjusting to the burgundy storm than I was, “I’ve not succeeded in finding a single object in any color other than burgundy. I believe this over here is the kitchen.”

I looked toward his voice. It was an extraordinary sight: the top half of a man, from just above his waist on up, floating in a burgundy ocean. As I adjusted more to the shades of burgundy around me, I began to suspect that what I saw was O’Really standing behind some sort of peninsula or other topographic formation of the kitchen.

“A burgundy skillet,” he continued, “sitting on a burgundy stove. A burgundy kettle. A burgundy coffee pot. A burgundy corkscrew. A burgundy wine glass. A bottle of Domaine des Piles Rechargeables burgundy wine, with the label rendered entirely in shades of burgundy.”

“Technically,” I objected weakly, “Domaine des Piles Rechargeables is a Cotes du—”

“A burgundy dishwasher,” he went on. “A burgundy sink with a burgundy faucet. And over there, a row of burgundy suitcases.”

“Suitcases?” My interest was suddenly piqued.

“You’re sitting on them,” O’Really said.

I leaped up. Now that my eyes had adjusted to the light from the burgundy lamp, I could see that what I had first taken to be a sofa or coffee table was in fact a row of burgundy suitcases sitting side by side, all about the same size, though each was slightly different in style from the others.

I counted them carefully. “How many cases would you say are in this row?” I asked O’Really.

He counted silently. “Twelve,” he answered after what was evidently a careful count.

“And how many cases full of cash did you say had gone missing from Mr. Harding’s employers?”

“Twelve,” O’Really answered.

“What do you think we should do?”

“I think,” O’Really said carefully, “that we ought to fortify ourselves with a peppermint.”

This time, under the circumstances, I agreed.


Proceed to Chapter 11.