Anthony Boucher was a literary renaissance man: an Edgar Award–winning mystery reviewer, an esteemed editor of the Hugo Award–winning Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, a prolific scriptwriter of radio mystery programs, and an accomplished writer of mystery, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. With a particular fondness for the locked room mystery, Boucher created such iconic sleuths as Los Angeles PI Fergus O’Breen, amateur sleuth Sister Ursula, and alcoholic ex-cop Nick Noble.
The guilty better say their prayers when Sister Ursula is on the case—in this acclaimed mystery novel, which remains “as expert as a fencer’s skill and as fresh as a daisy” (The New York Times Book Review).
The head of the Children of Light, cloaked in his yellow robe, has placed the ancient curse of the Nine Times Nine upon Wolfe Harrigan, the famed author and debunker of cults, who naturally scoffs. The next day, Wolfe’s assistant, Matt Duncan, sees something in the window of Wolfe’s study that throws him into a panic: a man in a yellow robe.
When Wolfe is found alone and dead inside the study, the police are stumped. All the windows were locked, and Wolfe’s sister, who was sitting right outside the door, claims she saw no one come out. The baffling case doesn’t add up for family friend Sister Ursula. But she’ll need a miracle if she hopes to divine the truth before the killer strikes again . . .
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Long after the power of the Nine Times Nine had been destroyed forever, Matt Duncan was checking through back files of Los Angeles newspapers, making notes for a feature article on the fitful and futile censorship of burlesque. The subject had good possibilities; you could illustrate it with newsphotos of vice squad investigators giving demonstrations. ... Matt grinned over his work and even forgot, for minutes at a time, to be annoyed by the library's no-smoking regulation.
But as he went through the plump edition of Easter Sunday, 1940, he began to forget burlesque. One small item after another sprang from the page in purposeful montage. Matt supposed that he had read the paper the morning it appeared. He must have; but he could not recall having read these squibs. They had been meaningless then; his eye had glanced bluntly off the names of Harrigan and Marshall and Ahasver. But he could see it now; this was the case in miniature — a dossier of foreboding.
The first piece of this collection had clearly been written by a young reporter who hoped some day to be a columnist:
EASTER POSTPONED A WEEK
Thanksgiving may have come a week early in 1939, but here's some consolation to make up for it. In 1940 Easter comes a week late.
But don't let this influence your vote in the presidential primaries. This is one shock to tradition that doesn't come from Washington.
In fact, according to Ahasver, the religious leader of the Children of Light, it isn't a shock to tradition at all. It is tradition. Ahasver knows. He was there.
Because Ahasver, you see, is the Wandering Jew. At least that's what he says, and when you sit in the Temple of Light and watch the neon shining on his famous yellow robe, you somehow don't feel inclined to argue about a little point like that.
"The gospels are in error," Ahasver announced to the world yesterday. "The only true Gospel is the Gospel of Joseph of Arimathea, which I found three years ago in a Tibetan lamasery; and there you will read that Christ was crucified on the Friday following the Passover, as I too remember.
"Therefore we Children of Light will make this small beginning here in Los Angeles to celebrate the true date of Easter. In time all Christianity shall join us."
Your reporter was so impressed with this first-hand testimony that he forgot to ask the Man in the Yellow Robe if anyone had bothered to notify the Easter Bunny.
The Childen of Light, Matt thought as he read, did sound funny then. They were fair game for any cub who could type gags faster than he could think. Matt wondered if this same reporter had written any of the later stories, when all Los Angeles debated about Ahasver, when many saw the Light and more talked of lynching — but nobody laughed.
The next item had its humorous side, perhaps, but in this case the reporter had chosen to ignore it:
LAWYER RESUMES PUBLIC ACTIVITY
"Silence is good for man's soul."
This was the explanation vouchsafed last night by R. Joseph Harrigan, eminent Los Angeles attorney, for his forty-day absence from political activity.
"In the present state of the nation," Harrigan said at the post-Lenten banquet of the Knights of Columbus, "no man can trust himself to open speech without danger of falling into the deadly sin of Anger. For this reason I have abstained from all public speaking during Lent.
"But a man owes a duty to his country as well as to his soul, and I rejoice that my time of silence is past. I ask grace to keep me from anger, but I pray that I may never lose the power of righteous indignation."
As usual, Harrigan's speaking schedule is once more crowded. This week he will address the League of Women Voters, the Young Republicans, the Associated Farmers, and the Holy Name Society.
The next was a small notice hidden in a corner:
Tomorrow, Easter Monday, the new chapel of the Sisters of Martha of Bethany will be consecrated by Archbishop John J. Cantwell. The chapel is the gift of Ellen Harrigan and is dedicated to the memory of Rufus Harrigan, pioneer Angeleno.
The third Harrigan item was on the book page:
Fleece My Sheep, by A. Wolfe Harrigan. Revised edition. Venture House. New edition of the standard work on phony religious rackets. Indispensable reading — especially in Los Angeles. — M. L.
These four fragments, Matt supposed, the ideal armchair reasoner could have pieced together as early as that Easter Sunday. Wolfe Harrigan's name would have linked him with the charitable Ellen and the oratorical R. Joseph, and the subject of his book might have indicated some connection with Ahasver. But not even Mycroft Holmes, in the stilly recesses of the Diogenes Club, could have connected these four notices with the fifth:
The mangled body found last Wednesday on the tracks near the Union Depot has been identified as J. J. Madison, 51, retired taxidermist, of 2234 Palmero drive, it was learned today. Identification was established by Detective Lieutenant Terence Marshall, who traced the serial number on the battered pair of spectacles found beside the body.
The inquest, postponed pending identification, will be held tomorrow.
Good work, that identification, thought Matt; but, of course, he would expect that of Marshall now. He wondered how that inquest had come out, and what the retired taxidermist would think of being involved, even so indirectly as this, with what the papers were to call the Astral Body Murder.
The next item the hypothetical Mycroft might have fitted in more readily:
JURY SPLITS ON "SCRYER"
Hermann Sussmaul, better known as the Swami Mahopadhyaya Virasenanda, was free to scry again yesterday, when Judge Warren Hill discharged the jury which had failed to reach a verdict in his trial for obtaining money under false pretenses.
Sussmaul received the nickname of "The Town Scryer" from a local columnist when he was indicted by the grand jury on charges of reading the future for lonely ladies in pools of different colored ink. The color used was said to vary according to the price paid.
Hall of Justice gossips put the vote at 11 to 1 for conviction.
The last of the items had, of course, no direct bearing on the question of the yellow robe, save as it accounted for Matt's own entrance into the case. It read simply:
22 WRITERS DROPPED FROM PROJECT
Necessary retrenchments in WPA expenditures, together with difficulties in securing the required local sponsorship, occasioned the dismissal as of the end of this month of 22 members of the local writers' project, it was announced yesterday.
That was the one of those six items which Matt had read carefully on that Easter Sunday morning.
The story, he learned at the office Monday (while the Harrigan Memorial Chapel of the Sisters of Martha of Bethany was being consecrated), had slipped into print prematurely. Personnel wasn't handing out the pink slips yet — wouldn't even announce who was to get them until the end of the week. The idea probably was that a man who knew he was being fired anyway might scamp his work in the interim — the sort of thing a bright-eyed efficiency boy might think up, in inhuman ignorance of the effect on the whole staff of not knowing where the ax would fall.
And if it fell — well, it had fallen on him often enough before in private industry. You were taken on last, so you're the first to be dropped. Maybe you get another job, the firm retrenches, you're a new man again, and so back to the old routine — daytimes hunting a job, night times turning out pulps — sometimes selling them and more often not. Matt was still young, but he had developed a certain resentful resignation by now. He only smiled now if he thought of the days when he used to have money enough to take a girl out and she'd burble, "So you're a writer! My, that must be exciting!"
Matt tried not to think about the ax. He sweated valiantly at the history of the so-called mission church of Our Lady of the Angels just as though he was going to stay on and finish the job. But sometimes, underneath his industry, there came a sneaking hopeless wish that he believed the things he was reading about, so that he could at least ease his mind by a brief prayer to avert that pink slip.
Not that it would have done any good. As Sister Ursula often told him later, prayers are answered if it is best for us; and if he hadn't been one of the twenty-two, he would (to produce a masterful understatement) have missed some interesting experiences.
Anyone who told him this, however, on that dismal last Friday in March would have been inviting destruction. That was when the slips came out, and Matt knew that he was one of the twenty-two.
A week before, on Good Friday, he had gone down to the mission church by the Plaza, subject of his research, and listened to as much as he could take of the Three Hours' service. He had felt no religious emotions, but he had been oddly impressed by the phenomenon of a day of sorrow — twenty-four hours chosen out of the bright cycle of the sun and neatly vested in black. A sort of spiritual eclipse. He could not understand it at the time — an hour is an hour; what happens in that hour determines its color, not the day on which it chances to fall. But now, as he walked along the garishness of Main Street on the evening of this second and darker Friday, he began to understand.
It wasn't that he'd thought of the Writers' Project as anything permanent. There was youthful arrogance and scorn in his feelings for some of the older men on the project — career men, as he termed them diplomatically. But he had wanted to leave at his own time — when his own unsubsidized writing could support him. It hadn't been easy — doing eight hours of research at the office or the library and then coming home to hammer out a hopefully slanted short short or (with more pleasure but less hope) another chapter of that endlessly sprawling novel which might sometime take recognizable shape. But there had been a certain security about it. No matter how many rejections piled up in the bureau drawer, there was still the check from the project. And now ...
He had thought that a burlesque show might relieve him. But now, in the unreserved top of the balcony, he felt a certain sense of sacrilege at allowing such roundly foul buffoonery to obtrude upon his black mood. He walked out in the midst of a promising strip number and found the nearest bar.
"Want to buy me a drink?" asked the girl in the second-hand evening gown.
"No," said Matt.
"Go on. A nice-looking man like you hadn't ought to be lonely." She pushed her stool closer to his.
"I cannot buy you a drink," Matt said carefully, "because you are a phantom. The City Council and the State Board of Equalization have announced that you are no more. Main Street is cleaned up, they have told us; there is no such thing as a B-girl. So even if I buy you a drink, how can you drink it? You aren't here."
"You could try."
"All right. If that's the way you feel about it ..."
Matt stared into the mirror behind the bar. It would take a B-girl, he decided, to call him nice-looking. Basically, perhaps, his wasn't a bad face; but the scar didn't do it any real good. The scar ran from his left temple clear across his cheek almost to the corner of his mouth. It hadn't healed badly, considering the hasty and secret measures that had been taken when the fraternity initiation went wrong; but it did produce a certain puckering disproportion. And the unaccountable streak of white that ran through his shaggy black hair looked neither striking nor distinguished; it just made him something of a freak. He frowned into the mirror. This wasn't helping Black Friday any. Maudlin self-pity, that's what it was.
He finished the rye and pushed the small glass across the bar with a dime, a nickel, and no wasted words. While he waited for its return he watched in the mirror the B-girl's newest victim. Now this one she could call nice-looking and it would be sheer understatement. Everything was perfect from the just-high-enough forehead to the just-large-enough mustache. Even the carefully groomed hair was just-not-quite-too-slick. Well-dressed, too, for Main Street — running a terrible risk of ending the evening by being rolled.
There was something else about him, too. Something familiar. Then his long-lashed eyes met Matt's in the mirror.
"Gregory!" Matt exclaimed, and "Matt!" cried the other.
"I guess you boys want to be alone," said the B-girl, and stalked away.
If Matt had paused to think, he might have remembered that he and Gregory Randall had never exactly liked each other. In fact Gregory, a junior when Matt was a pledge, had been indirectly responsible for that scar. Even more important was the distinction of class or, to speak more accurately, the difference in the amount of money they had to spend. As a freshman in 1929, Matt had enjoyed a financial freedom which seemed fabulous to him in 1940; but even then he had not been in a class with a Randall, son of one of the half-dozen biggest brokers in Los Angeles.
But it was almost eight years since Matt had even seen Greg Randall, and such a chance reunion called for good feelings and good cheer. Besides, it might help. So the two shook hands vigorously and called each other the most warmly obscene names and asked each other what's become of Old Hungadunga until it was time for another round.
Gregory gulped his Manhattan and looked at Matt's glass. "What's that?"
"Drink it up and I'll join you in another. Cocktails are slow." His eye took in at once Matt's hesitation and his frayed cuffs. "This is on me," he added, in a tone which made Matt at once grateful and resentful.
Greg took his straight rye with the gasping splutter of a man spoiled by mixed drinks. "I feel low," he said at last.
"So do I."
"Too bad." But he didn't ask why. "Yes, Matt, old man, I feel low. Low as a snake's belly or a policeman's arch or all the other bright cracks. I'm on a spot, I am."
"T. F. Randall's son on a spot? What's the System coming to?"
Greg looked puzzled. "Look here, Matt, that's a funny thing to say. You haven't gone Red or anything, have you?"
Matt grinned. "Hadn't you heard? Comes the revolution, I'm slated to be a commissar."
Randall thought about it. "I see," he said. "You're joking. But I really am in a mess, Matt."
Matt drew on his memory for the most likely explanation. "What's the matter? Have you got to marry the girl?"
"No. That's just it."
"What do you mean, that's just it?"
"I mean that's it. I don't have to. I mean, I have not to. It's the other way round. And speaking of rounds —" He gestured to the bartender.
"The other ... Oh. You mean she won't marry you."
"Yes," sighed Gregory Randall. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and took out a comb.
"I've seen your name in the gossip columns from time to time, Greg. I like to see how the other half of one per cent lives. I thought you were the catch of the season — the last several seasons in fact. Who is this coy damsel?"
"She's such a child, that's it." Gregory ended his hair-combing with a dab at each end of his mustache. "She doesn't know her own mind."
"Cradle-snatching? You're too young for that."
"You mean too old, don't you?"
"Skip it. But where's the rub?"
"Poverty, chastity, and obedience!" Greg snorted.
"I beg your pardon?"
"I said poverty, chastity, and obedience. The hell with them."
"The hell with them," Matt agreed. "They pretty much sum up the past year of my life. And the next year probably, too, if I can find anything to obey. But I never heard of a man objecting to them in a wife excepting maybe the first — and you can remedy that."
"But she won't be a wife. She wants to be a sister."
"I've heard that one before."
"No, you haven't. She doesn't want to be a sister to me. She wants to be a Sister of Martha of Bethany."
"And who might — ? Oh. ... You mean a Sister!"
"Yes. That's it. A sister. A nun."
"Oh." The full horror of the situation began to hit Matt in unison with the last rye. "You mean that this child wants to lock herself away from the world to become a nun?"
"That," said Gregory Randall desolately, "is exactly what I mean."
"Look." Matt fingered the dimes in his pocket. "Let's have another on me and you tell me all about this. This is serious. I mean, I thought I was on a spot but, hell, it's just what everybody's going through who isn't — if you won't start thinking I'm a Red again — who isn't a Randall. But this is different. It isn't right somehow. It's like some dark arm of the past reaching into our modern life. I want to know how things like this happen. Tell me about it. Who is this infant?"
"Infant's a bit strong, old man, but still ... She's Concha Harrigan. Her uncle is Dad's attorney. But don't get me wrong. This isn't any of your family-arranged affairs. We met at a party and were going swell before we even knew who each other were ... was."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Nine Times Nine"
Copyright © 1969 Estate of Anthony Boucher.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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