(Continuing the narrative which began here.)

Chapter 12: In Which I Learn the Truth.

WE DIDN’T TAKE the money, O’Really and I. We thought about it for a while—I don’t want you to think we didn’t. But we just couldn’t see a way to make it work. O’Really was a suspected embezzler; I was a suspected murderer. Both supposed crimes were connected with the cases of cash we had found in the Harding apartment.

In fact, I couldn’t even take one of the cases back to the Countess. We needed to call the police to see the apartment for themselves, or O’Really would live under his little cloud forever. With the twelve cases there—no need to mention the thirteenth lump of money deposited in the Steamfitters and Phrenologists Federal Savings Bank—the whole question of O’Really’s guilt was answered in the negative. With one missing, he was just as suspicious as before.

O’Really suggested buying a small South American country and repudiating all its extradition treaties, but in the end we agreed that even a run-down South American country with a lot of mileage on it would probably cost more than $425,553,815.76. Everything is so expensive these days.

So the police were really impressed with our integrity, if that’s what you call cowardice, when we called them to the Harding apartment and showed them the twelve cases all lined up and still filled with cash. They spent some time counting the cash and drooling on it, and then some time talking into radios and filling out forms. Then they were gone, and so was the money.

O’Really went back to his car, poor but vindicated. I walked for a while, collecting my thoughts. Once I had them collected and bound in morocco, I caught a streetcar on Warrington Avenue.

Obviously, my collected thoughts told me, the next thing to do was to see the Countess. That was obvious enough, but it wasn’t so obvious how I was going to find her. She had always found me before. Now I’d have to do some detective work to find her so I could tell her the results of my detective work. And even when I found her, I’d have to tell her that I didn’t exactly have her case in hand—news that would probably earn me a faceful of sprouts. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this job.

I finally got the Countess’ address from her entry in the Wikipedia, which told me that she lived in a penthouse at the top of Bellefield Hall. I have no idea what detectives did before the Wikipedia.

Bellefield Hall was about forty-five minutes away by streetcar and bus, so I had plenty of time to think of what I was going to say to the Countess. Not that it did any good. I couldn’t think of any way to begin. My conclusion was simple enough: there were thirteen identical sums of money, one of which was bound to be hers, and I didn’t exactly have any of them in my hands at the moment. It was just a question of how to lead up to that. I thought of starting out lightheartedly, maybe with a few knock-knock jokes. Or maybe not.

And there was the matter of the thirteenth case—if there was a thirteenth case. Harding had deposited $35,462,817.98 in the Steamfitters and Phrenologists Federal Savings Bank. It had to be Harding: who else would be using the name Higgins and depositing exactly $35,462,817.98? So there was some chance—let’s call it one in thirteen—that the Countess’ money was in the bank rather than with the police. I didn’t know whether that was better or worse. Either way it would be hard.

The more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t decide whether I’d succeeded or failed in this case. I knew what had happened to the money. Success! Well, I wasn’t really sure which of two places the money was in. Failure! But either way I knew that the money was in one of two places. Success! But I hadn’t actually retrieved the missing case. Failure! But I knew who had taken it. Success! But I was likely to get sprouts in my face again. Failure!

By the time I had thought through all the possibilities (and there were a lot more, but why should you suffer as much as I did?), my bus was pulling up in front of Bellefield Hall.

This was a huge Art Deco hotel built of an odd combination of brick and deep red sandstone. It was definitely a swankier place than I was used to. I’d seen the outside, but I’d never been inside before—and for a very good reason. There was a doorman standing in front who looked like a four-star general with all the tin plating and tassels on his deep red uniform. You couldn’t go past the doorman: he was right in front of the door, so you had to ask him to open it or fight him for it. I had never got up the courage to do either. Now I had to get in there to see the Countess, so I decided to ask, since the doorman was about six and a half feet tall and a good bit weightier than I am. I walked right up to te doorman, stared him straight in the lapels, gave him my name, and told him I had an appointment with the Countess Tatiana von Sturzhelm y Sombrero.

Well, you should have seen what that did to his face. He looked like a man who had just discovered pixies in the bottom of his underwear drawer. “The Countess?” he sputtered. “But she never sees anybody!”

“She’ll see me,” I told him with a certainty I didn’t quite feel.

He stared down at me intently, as though he could read the answers to all his questions about the universe in my face if he could just make out the writing. He got purpler and purpler, until I thought his face was just going to explode. Then finally he pushed a button on some square thing hanging from his belt, and almost immediately an assistant doorman appeared at his side.

“This gentleman says he has an appointment with the Countess,” the doorman told the assistant.

“The Countess?” The assistant was obviously just as surprised. Then the assistant pushed a button on the square thing on his belt, and a deputy assistant underdoorman whooshed up.

“This gentleman says he has an appointment with the Countess,” the assistant said.

“The Countess?” the deputy assistant underdoorman sputtered, and he pushed a button on the square thing on his belt. Immediately a bellboy in a splendid burgundy uniform appeared in the doorway.

“This gentleman says he has an appointment with the Countess,” the deputy assistant underdoorman said.

The bellboy didn’t react at all. He simply said “This way, sir,” and led me through the door into the lobby.

Everything in the lobby was dark red marble and polished chrome sunbursts, sinuous curves and symmetry. But it was hard to make out any deeper level of detail than that, because the lobby was filled with herds of bellboys, all in the same burgundy uniform, and all carrying little silver trays and frantically trying to page somebody. There were certainly more bellboys than there were patrons, and it was impossible to hear any of the pages in the cacophony. So, as far as I could tell, the bellboys just kept circulating forever, weaving in and out of the crowd of identical bellboys and shouting incomprehensible pages into the echoing marble of the lobby.

I tried to follow the bellboy who was leading me, but it was hopeless. Soon I realized I’d lost him and was following another bellboy, and then when I thought I’d found the first again it turned out to be another one altogether. After five or six more bellboys, I ended up in the bar somehow, where I was very surprised to see my old friend Ludmilla behind the counter.

“What are you doing here?” I asked her.

“Polishing a glass,” she said, polishing a glass. “What are you doing here?”

I sat down on one of the stools. “I’m looking for the Countess Tatiana,” I answered, hoping she might be able to steer me in the right direction.

“There’s no such person,” Ludmilla said.

“Well, of course there is,” I replied. “I still have the sprouts to prove it.”

“There’s no such person,” Ludmilla repeated.

I looked around helplessly, and for the first time recognized that the man to my right at the bar was someone I knew. I couldn’t place him at first, but then I recognized him: Midas Geldman, the reclusive zillionaire. I don’t know why, but for some reason I wasn’t surprised to see him there.

“But you knew the Countess,” I said to him. “You know she’s a real person.”

“Yes,” Mr. Geldman agreed. “But she is not quite what she seems to be.”

“What does that mean?” I demanded impatiently.

“I don’t really know,” he replied. “I heard it somewhere, and I thought I’d pass it along to you.”

I threw up my hands in disgust and despair and looked the other way.

“Well, don’t look at me, my dear sir,” said Seamus O’Really, sitting on the stool to my left. “To me, this Countess is only a name in a newspaper clipping.”

I’d had enough of this. I stood up and stomped back toward the lobby.

“You wouldn’t be like this if you ate more protein!” I heard Ludmilla shouting after me. But I was too tired and confused to think up a witty rejoinder.

Wading into the sea of bellboys, I spied a wall of elevator doors on the opposite side of the lobby. Fine, I thought: if no one would take me to the Countess, I’d go myself. How hard can it be to find a penthouse? Certainly not as hard as swimming through the shouting bellboys. Several times I thought I’d lost my way, and one I was afraid I was going under for the last time. But eventually I made it to the other side and lunged for an open elevator. I was just a little too slow: it filled up with bellboys and slammed shut just before I got to the door.

No matter: another would be here soon. As soon as I heard the ding and saw the light, I raced for the elevator at the end of the row. But it had filled up with bellboys and departed before I got there. Then the elevator next to me dinged and lit up. I took one step toward it, but in that time it had opened and filled up with bellboys so tightly packed that there was simply no room at all in it. The same thing happened three more times.

I was about to give up and take the stairs when the elevator next to me opened. It was empty, and no bellboys were running for it. I stepped in a bit suspiciously, but the bellboys were completely ignoring it. So I turned to the operator and told him I wanted the penthouse.

“Yes, sir,” he replied in a flat monotone.

The doors closed, and the elevator lurched upward.

At the next floor, the doors opened again.

“Mezzanine,” the operator chanted in his invariable monotone. “Guest services, tapas bar, post office.”

No one got on, and I didn’t get off.

At the next floor, we stopped again.

“Second floor,” the operator chanted. “Grand ballroom, conference rooms, coffee shop, trampolines.”

No one got on, and I didn’t get off.

At the next floor, we stopped again.

“Third floor. Rooms three-oh-one to three-twenty-eight.”

No one got on.

“Is it positively necessary to stop at every floor?” I asked, a bit testily.

“This is a local,” the operator replied with unvarying expression. “Express elevators go straight. Locals stop at every floor.”

“Is it likely that I could get an express from this floor?”

“Express elevators fill up fast,” the operator chanted as the doors closed. “Only forty-six more floors to go.”

So we stopped at every floor, and I began to notice a strange progression. Dark red was the dominant color on the lower floors, but as we went higher it dominated more and more. By the thirtieth floor, it was getting hard to distinguish details in the decorations, which were becoming more and more uniformly burgundy. Then even the light in the elevator began to shift subtly toward the red spectrum. I looked up and saw dark red gels closing over the ceiling lights one by one.

I was beginning to feel feverish. This was far worse than the Harding apartment. This was an inescapable maelstrom of burgundy. And still the elevator went up one floor at a time, stopping at every floor, and each floor more burgundy than the last. My brain was whirling. I was drowning in a deluge of burgundy. I was spiraling into a burgundy hole, the collapsed remnant of a red giant. Forty-five, forty-six, forty-seven, forty-eight—

I burst out of the elevator, my mind spinning. “There was never any Harding at all!” I shouted. “Burgundy limousines! Burgundy hotels! It was you all the time, you crazy burgundy-loving, sprout-throwing—um…”

I stopped. The penthouse wasn’t burgundy at all. It was tastefully furnished in inlaid wood, a bit on the moderne side but not too flashy. Everything about it was in the very best taste, from the oriental rugs to the Epidendrum orchids on the balcony, which I could see through a pair of open French doors.

“Well done,” said a familiar voice beside me.

I turned and saw Mr. Higgins, old Doc Boli’s secretary.

“Thank you,” I said. I sat down in an armchair and tried to stop my head from spinning around on my neck. “Um, what did I do well?”

“You have done very well in following these mysteries to their conclusion,” Mr. Higgins said. “You have not deduced everything, but that was not required of you. The Countess and I were more interested in how you approached the problems than in whether you solved them completely.”

I looked up, and for the first time I noticed the Countess, still wearing her veil, sitting in a huge wicker chair on the opposite side of the room.

“So what is she?” I demanded, trying to keep a civil tongue in my head. “Some sort of international criminal mastermind?”

Mr. Higgins came close to smiling. “Hardly, sir. But you were given certain clues, if I may use the term, which you might have applied to the problem.”

“Clues?” I was beyond baffled by now.

“Mr. Midas Geldman, for example, was instructed to tell you that the Countess was not quite what she seemed to be. Miss Ludmilla McArdle was instructed to tell you that there was no such person as the Countess. Both statements are, in the strictest sense, true.”

“But I see the Countess over there,” I protested. “Have I been having hallucinations? Did I just imagine the sprouts in my hair?”

“Certainly not, sir,” Mr. Higgins answered. “You have, however, been slightly deceived. Since you have not yet discovered it for yourself, I see no harm in revealing to you that the Countess Tatiana von Klapphut y Sombrero is in fact Dr. Henricus Albertus Boli.”

Here the Countess removed her veil, and sure enough she was a he.

“Didn’t Dr. Boli have a beard?” I asked.

“Dr. Boli’s beard is removable when the occasion warrants,” Mr. Higgins explained. “It is a trick, if I may call it that, which Dr. Boli learned from the late King William I of Prussia.”

I slumped back in my chair. “Well, I admit I sort of missed that,” I said. “But I was right that there was no Harding, wasn’t I?”

“Perfectly correct,” Mr. Higgins replied.

“And that body we saw in the Hyundai?”

“Merely a well-known actor employed for the occasion. He is particularly celebrated for his roles as corpses, and is currently starring in a regendered theatrical adaptation of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.”

“So this was all some weird and elaborate test?”

“Elaborate, yes,” Mr. Higgins said, “but perfectly justified under the circumstances. Dr. Boli devised a series of events and puzzles to test your disposition, your adaptability, your intelligence, and most of all your integrity.”

“And why did he do that?” I was getting a bit annoyed. Actually, when I thought about all I’d been through, I was getting a lot annoyed.

“The time of my service to Dr. Boli is coming to an end. In a year, I shall be retiring to my estates in the Pays d’Oc, and at that time Dr. Boli will require a new secretary. Because of your resourcefulness, your intelligence, and your entire lack of other prospects of success for the future, Dr. Boli has chosen to offer that position to you.”

“Me? A private secretary?” I was about to say something along the lines of “Ha,” but Mr. Higgins continued.

“I should mention that the starting salary for this position is something in the lower eight figures.”

The “Ha” I’d been preparing withered on the vine, fell off, and fluttered away in the gentle breeze from the balcony. Instead, some appalling instinct for honesty and fairness led me to protest, “But I didn’t figure everything out. I never even figured out where the thirteenth case came from.”

“There was no thirteenth case,” Mr Higgins replied.

“But Harding—I mean the Countess—I mean—well, you know what I mean—deposited $35,462,817.98 in the Steamfitters and Phrenologists Federal Savings Bank, and we found twelve cases of cash in his apartment. That makes thirteen cases altogether, doesn’t it? Or am I going crazy?”

“Your sanity is not the subject of discussion,” Mr. Higgins said calmly. “Dr. Boli, in his persona of the Countess, in her persona of Mr. Harding, did not make that deposit.”

“But the name was Higgins, and—wait a minute…”

“Yes,” Mr. Higgins said. “I made that deposit. It was the retirement bonus given to me by Dr. Boli. That it was exactly the same amount as the one you were hired to find was an added distraction for you, a ‘red herring’ as it were, as well as an example of what I may call Dr. Boli’s sly sense of humor.”

Well, one thing was obvious. I was a pretty hopeless detective. Maybe I’d make a better secretary—especially at an eight-figure salary.

“So when do I start?” I asked.

“Then I take it that you accept the position?”

“Well, the offer is very attractive.”

“In that case, you may start immediately. I shall spend the next year training you. By the end of that time, you should be familiar with most of Dr. Boli’s whims and preferences, thus relieving Dr. Boli of the necessity of speaking except on extraordinary occasions. You have already demonstrated a remarkable equilibrium in dealing with unusual behaviors, so nothing Dr. Boli does should dismay you inordinately.”

“That’s good,” I said. It sounded like quite a roller coaster ahead. “So Dr. Boli was willing to risk all that cash just to audition a new secretary. What happens to it now? Do the police still have it?”

“No, sir. The police were also hired actors. The cases, with the cash undisturbed, have been returned to Dr. Boli.”

“I see,” I said. I felt a momentary pang of regret when I thought of all that cash going out of circulation again.

“If you like,” Mr. Higgins continued, “you may keep the cases and the cash they contain as souvenirs.”

I don’t remember anything after that until I woke up several hours later in a very comfortable bed. Mr. Higgins tells me I passed out, but Dr. Boli’s private physicians say it’s not likely to happen again.