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.
In this “entertaining yarn,” the first to feature Fergus O’Breen, Col. Theodore Rand has received a strange telegram from his friend Humphrey Garnett (Kirkus Reviews). “You may be invaluable witness at inquest on my body,” it reads. A retired man of leisure, Rand opts to indulge what he thinks is his friend’s whim, flying from New York to Garnett’s home in Los Angeles—only to find Garnett dead upon his arrival.
After the police arrest the wrong man, Garnett’s family friend, rookie PI Fergus O’Breen, is called in to help. An eccentric and unorthodox Irishman, O’Breen is eager to take on his first murder case. But with a house full of suspects and a mystery steeped in playing card lore, the deck may be stacked against him. Now O’Breen must quickly shuffle through the clues if he hopes to solve this one before the real killer deals another deadly hand . . .
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It was quite literally a matter of life and death; and his own death was not a pleasant thing to contemplate. Clearly the next step was to send the telegram. The affair might not come to a head for several days yet, but the telegram must be sent now.
He broke off his incompleted game of patience (the knave of diamonds was hopelessly locked anyhow — a fact which pleased him ironically in view of what was to follow) and walked slowly around the room while he pondered the exact phrasing.
He was alone now in the study. Outside the window he could glimpse the Verdugo hills, calmly beautiful in the winter sunlight. But in here he was alone with the oddly assorted library, the cryptic chemical notes, the table for four-handed chess, the superb collection of playing cards. It was, he mused characteristically, a good setting.
He paused before a picture on the wall — an exquisite reproduction of one of the silver-gold tarot cards painted for Charles VI. They had always fascinated him, these tarots — dark symbols of an ancient mysticism, now lightly shuffled in a game of chance, but still strong with their old stark meaning. That was fitting for his plan — a daring, fantastic gamble with a core of desperate significance.
He had it now. Swiftly he crossed to the telephone while the perfect formula was still sharp in his mind. He dialed operator and asked for Western Union.
"I want to send a telegram," he said, "to Colonel Theodore Rand." He spelled out the name and added an address in a New York suburb.
"And what is the message?" the flat voice asked.
"COME TO LOS ANGELES AT ONCE STOP." He spoke slowly and clearly. "FLY IF NECESSARY STOP."
The voice interrupted mechanically. "You do not need to send the word STOP. Punctuation is now transmitted free of charge."
"Send it anyway." He smiled. "I like the effect."
"Very well, if you wish. It will count as a word. Is that all of the message?"
"No." His enunciation grew even sharper. "Add this. YOU MAY BE INVALUABLE WITNESS AT INQUEST ON MY BODY STOP." The voice emitted a noise of quite unprofessional surprise. "WATCH HECTOR-H, E, C, T, O, R-CAREFULLY." He added the signature and hung up without bothering to hear the message read back.
He returned to the picture on the wall and allowed himself a moment of smiling pleasure. It was a curious omen to bless his telegram — the tarot known as Le Pendu ... the Hanged Man.CHAPTER 2
Arthur Willowe Plays Solitaire
Arthur Willowe was the least clever person in the Garnett household. Everyone admitted that, including Willowe himself. Some of them were nice about it — Kay, for example, who loved him because he was her mother's brother, and never paused to remember that his lack of cleverness had killed her mother. Others were not so nice about it — for instance, the dominant ruler of the household, Humphrey Garnett himself, to whom forgiving and forgetting were as in-alterably alien as an error in a chess game.
Thus loved or hated, Willowe always felt self-consciously unclever. He was out of place in this room, with its monuments to ingenuity — the cabinet of rare playing cards, the desk crammed with chemical formulae, the table especially designed for that arcane mystery known as four-handed chess. So he sat unobtrusively in a corner and played solitaire.
The Garnett household went in for solitaire extensively. In any of the rooms you were apt to come across a low table and a worn pack or two for the use of anyone who wished to think out a problem to pasteboard accompaniment. But Arthur Willowe was unclever even in his choice of solitaires. Where the othermen played the Zodiac or the Salic Law or La Nivernaise (elaborate involutions demanding two or more packs and a planned campaign as complex as a chess problem), Willowe contented himself with one pack and Klondike or Canfield, and lost even those with a persistence which would have cruelly disheartened anyone who laid a serious claim to an ingenious mind.
It was probably those two interrelated factors — devotion to solitaire and lack of cleverness — which made Arthur Willowe acutely aware of the impending murder.
He would not have put it so sharply as that himself. It was simply that there was a tension in the household, a tension so strong that it must inevitably be loosed by one hard moment of violence.
He noticed it first in the afternoon. He had tired of Canfield and was deciding to try Klondike for a change. He had just laid out the stock and the starter when his brother-in-law came in to telephone. Humphrey Garnett didn't look in the corner. People had a way of not looking at him, Willowe thought; he could commit a neat murder in a crowded room and afterwards twenty people would swear they hadn't seen him there. For a moment he sat wondering at himself for thinking of such a strange thing as murder; then he shrugged, and his weary old hands laid out the four cards across.
There was something of strength and efficiency in even the way Humphrey Garnett approached a telephone. There was not a waste movement of his compact muscles. The clicks of the dial were as sharp and regular as rifle practice. "Dr. White's office," Willowe heard him say.
There was a pause, and Willowe moved a card or two fitfully. Then his brother-in-law's vigorous voice cut across his thoughts. "White? Garnett speaking. Called to give you the weekly report. I'm still alive, and by God I love it." His laughter was free and rough. "I'll see you at your funeral, my fine threatening charlatan."
He hung up abruptly and dialed another number. "O'Breen?" There was a pause. "That you, O'Breen? Got that report for me?" A question at the other end seemed to interrupt him. "Damn it, man, what kind of a detective are you if you can't recognize a voice on the phone? This is Garnett speaking. Go ahead."
He was silent for a while. Silent, that is, verbally; Willowe could hear an occasional grunt of restrained joy and once an outburst of triumphant laughter. "Fine," Garnett said at last. "Good lad. Glad I took a chance on you. Call and see us sometime — as Kay's friend, of course. Not a word about this. Meanwhile send me a copy of that and your bill. And you needn't be too modest in your demands. God knows I couldn't overpay you for this."
He set down the receiver and stretched his wiry arms in a broad gesture of malicious glee. Then he saw Willowe. The quiet old man cringed a little. He felt what was coming.
Garnett walked slowly over to the table, contentedly rubbing a hairy wrist with an even hairier hand. "Don't be afraid, Arthur," he said with a curious harsh gentleness. "I'm not going to torment you. I'm not going to laugh at your piddling inefficiency. I'm not going to twit you for putting an eight on a ten. I'm not even going to mention automobiles or water hydrants."
Willowe's armor was thin. He winced at the last words (blood and water ... they mixed then, and the blood was as thin as the water ... Alicia's blood, thinly coursing ...). He tried hopelessly to recover himself by moving the offending eight.
"Of course," Garnett meditated with tense humor, "we'll have to wait until Rand has come. We couldn't get rid of the bastard before then; the Colonel and I must have our four-handed chess, and small help you'd be, my dear Arthur, with your — But forgive me. I had intended not to waste my abuse on you. It's bigger game I'm after now."
He said the words lightly, but Willowe felt a menace hid in their careless tone.
"What do you think of Richard Vinton?" Garnett asked abruptly, with ironic stress on each syllable of the name.
Willowe saw the young Englishman in his mind; but he was not alone. There was a bright, redheaded girl with him, and their eyes were alive at each other's presence. "Kay loves him," he answered simply.
"Does she, Arthur? Does she now indeed? How I have underestimated you, Arthur! You're really a most entertaining conversationalist."
The old man looked after Garnett in confusion. It had been a true and an obvious remark; he failed to understand its hidden humor. Why should a father find his daughter's love so magnificently comic?
Garnett was gone; but the room was still a sounding box for his vibrant laughter. And as Willowe listened to it, he began to understand. It was not the laughter of comedy.
This odd episode, so meaningless and yet (to Willowe at least) so unnerving, forced the old man to observe Richard Vinton more carefully. He had never particularly noticed the young British actor before. In past years he had been alert to watch people and their oddities, and then talk them over with Alicia, to whom all things human were fascinating; but now ...
He knew that Vinton was engaged to Kay Garnett, that he stayed at the house a great deal (there was even a room set aside for him), and that Humphrey Garnett, heretofore at least, had always seemed to relish his company as that of an equal in ingenuity. He thought he remembered vaguely that the young man's father, who bore some sort of British title, had been a crony of Garnett's during war days in Washington. Aside from that, Vinton was nothing to him but a pleasant young man who was building himself quite a reputation as a screen juvenile.
Now the young Briton seemed somehow more important. It was worth while distracting yourself from the cards to hear what he might say or what people might say to him.
Arthur Willowe was thinking these random thoughts on the sun porch. The study, for him, still rang with Garnett's throaty laughter; and the open air was a happier place. And so, because of these thoughts, he listened unseen when Kay and Vinton passed by him on their way from the garage to the front of the house.
"I've been thinking, Richard, about what you told me the other night," Kay was saying in her clear young voice.
"Yes?" There was a painful hesitancy in that one clipped syllable.
"I — You know, darling, it would be foolish to say it doesn't matter to me. It does, of course. Everything about you has to matter, and matter terribly." Her voice paused, and her footsteps too.
"I understand," Vinton murmured, so low that Willowe could scarcely hear him.
"But it would be just as foolish to say that it made any real difference between us. I love you; and if you want to tell me things like that — why, it just proves how much you love me too. So thank you, dear — and that's all."
They went on in silence, and Willowe resumed his patience and his thoughts. More and more Vinton seemed focal; there was even a Secret now. Willowe capitalized the word in his thoughts. That made things more melodramatic and added fresh zest to this new game he had found to entertain him.
The next move in the game was on the part of Will Harding — the pale, sandy, earnest young man who was Garnett's laboratory assistant. He came out on the porch shortly after the voices ceased. He might even have seen the couple pass by; certainly his thoughts were fixed upon them.
He spoke jerkily, as though forced despite himself. "Mr. Willowe ..."
Black seven on red eight. "Yes?" Fill the space from the stock.
"What do you know about Richard Vinton?"
That, Willowe thought to himself, is what people call a guilty start. But he looked unconcerned and said, "No more than you do, I suppose." And he outlined what little he did know.
"You think he's — you know what I mean — all right?"
"I think so."
The young man's dull voice sounded troubled. "We don't really know much about him, do we? And you hear so much about actors and the things that happen in the colony —"
"If Kay trusts him, I imagine that we can. But why should it concern you so, Will?"
"Why, I just mean — After all, he's here so much, and he's going to — I just couldn't help wondering."
The words were so suspiciously indefinite that Willowe looked up from his game. For a moment he saw the young technician, whom he had always so envied for his unemotional efficiency, staring along the path by which the lovers had passed with something very close to fury in his gray eyes. It was only for a moment. Then he turned and regarded Willowe with so pacific and ordinary a gaze that the older man could scarcely trust that instant of memory.
But the memory lingered nonetheless; and when the last member of the Garnett household came onto the porch some minutes later, he could not refrain from probing there, too. This careworn but still darkly beautiful girl was Camilla Sallice; and with her nothing was associated in Willowe's mind — no facts, no feelings, only a dull resentment of her very presence. Who she was, where she came from, why she lived with them and called Garnett "Uncle Humphrey" (though Willowe knew the man had, apart from his daughter Kay, no living relatives) — none of these things was clear.
She smiled at him — that curious smile so characteristic of her in its blend of tragedy and gaiety. "Would you like a cushion from the swing, Mr. Willowe? That chair looks frightfully hard."
"No, thank you," he muttered ungraciously. That was one of the infuriating things about this girl. She wanted to be so much nicer to him than he had any intention of allowing her to be.
"You don't mind if I share the sun with you?"
"No." He waited a minute or two, while she settled herself on the chaise longue with a feline stretch of her supple body. Then he sprang his question, just as she seemed on the point of dozing. "And how well, Miss Sallice, do you know Richard Vinton?"
She sat up sharply, flushed and almost a little frightened. For the moment she was too taken aback to say anything. He regretted that; for when she did speak, she had regained control of herself.
"Quite as well as I care to," she said calmly. "After all, Mr. Willowe, he is Kay's."
Disgruntled, Willowe returned to the cards. But he had hardly dealt a fresh stock when Camilla Sallice added, with a quiet amusement which he failed to comprehend, "And what would you think of me as a blonde?"
As Willowe shaved for dinner, with the cherished straight razor which Alicia had given him for his birthday the very week before — before the accident — he thought all these little items through. He had long felt terror in this house; that was nothing new. But he had always thought its menace directed at himself. He was mortally (even — he toyed with the word — immortally) afraid of Humphrey Garnett. He knew how Garnett hated him for Alicia's accidental death (was it an accident? if he had not boastfully tried to drive when he knew he needed new glasses ...) and he had gone in dread of impending revenge. It was a relief now to know that Garnett's enmity, for the moment at least, was directed at another object.
He knew a small trembling pleasure. He would be free for a little while of that oppressive dominance which Garnett exerted on him. He could think his own thoughts and plan his own plans, whether they pleased Humphrey Garnett or not. And it was reasonably certain that they would not please him.
Yes, this sudden tension of menace had its advantages. Smoke is in itself a stifling discomfort, but it is also a screen. Besides, this provided a new pleasure to distract him. In his petty respite, he found it markedly more entertaining to deal and arrange facts and emotions than to worry whether the ace was locked under the king (as it almost invariably was).
"All in all," he thought, "I should have quite a little collection for an investigator — if it should come to that." The thought was so absurd and yet (for even his quiet life had tender spots not formed for probing) so terrifyingly plausible that his old hand trembled just enough to produce a slight cut.CHAPTER 3
Humphrey Garnett Expounds a Parable
The conversation at dinner turned largely upon playing cards. This was not unusual; an interest which swayed Humphrey Garnett must inevitably affect the household which he dominated. But even Arthur Willowe, for all his unusually heightened perception, could not realize how vitally the lore of playing cards was to shape all their lives in the days to come.
The reactions of the group to cards were various. Kay, like a child, loved them for their beauty or oddity of design. Willowe's appreciation, too, was somewhat abstractly esthetic; but Camilla Sallice affected a preoccupation with the deeper occult meanings behind the now unheeded designs. Will Harding viewed the cards practically as tools with which to attain relaxation, and esteemed them highly as an aid to his work.
Richard Vinton, however, was the only one of the group to share their host's interest in the more scholarly and abstruse aspects of card history; and that, unfortunately, was the trend of tonight's conversation. This was presumably out of deference to their dinner guest — a gaunt, stooped, old gentleman named Warriner, whose exact identity Willowe failed to gather, but who seemed to have something professional to do with playingcards — curator of a museum collection or something of the sort.
At least the presence of this odd individual, who left his food almost untouched and subsisted largely on snuff taken between courses, served to dissipate for the moment the atmosphere of tension. There was only one awkward situation, and that was precipitated by the curator himself.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Case of the Crumpled Knave"
Copyright © 1939 Estate of Anthony Boucher.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
I Le Pendu,
II Arthur Willowe Plays Solitaire,
III Humphrey Garnett Expounds A Parable,
IV Colonel Rand Rereads A Telegram,
I Colonel Rand Takes a Taxi,
II Lieutenant Jackson Tells of a Murder,
III The Knave of Diamonds is Taken Prisoner,
IV Fergus Is Summoned,
V Fergus Takes Over,
VI Fergus Hears the Facts,
VII Will Harding Talks of Peace,
VIII Arthur Willowe Is Not Helpful,
IX Camilla Sallice Remembers a Motive,
X Colonel Rand Examines a Tarot,
XI People Talk at Dinner,
XII Colonel Rand Is Not a Gentleman,
XIII Colonel Rand Hears Things Go Bump in the Night,
XIV Fergus Apologizes,
XV Colonel Rand Reads in a Mirror,
XVI Fergus Goes Rowing,
XVII Camilla Sallice Tells Two Secrets,
XVIII Maurice Warriner Runs,
XIX Lieutenant Jackson Accepts an Ally,
XX Will Harding is Spectacular,
XXI A Room Is Sealed,
XXII Lieutenant Jackson Considers the Case Closed,
XXIII Fergus Gathers the Threads,
XXIV Fergus Ties the Knot,
XXV Colonel Rand Does His Duty,
XXVI The Case Is Closed,
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