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About the Author
Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006) was the most widely translated and best known science fiction author writing outside of the English language. Winner of the Kafka Prize, he was a contributor to many magazines, including the New Yorker, and the author of numerous works, including Solaris.
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Rattling rhythmically at each floor, the old-fashioned elevator moved upward past glass doors decorated with etchings of flowers. It stopped. Four men emerged and walked down the corridor toward a pair of leather-covered doors.
The doors swung open.
"This way, gentlemen," gestured someone standing just inside.
Gregory was the last one in, right behind the doctor. Compared to the brightly lit corridor, the room was almost dark. Through the window the bare branches of a tree were visible in the fog outside.
The Chief Inspector sat down behind his high, dark desk, which was enclosed by a low ornamental railing. Except for two telephones, an intercom, his pipe, his eyeglasses, and a small piece of chamois cloth, there was nothing on the polished wood surface.
Seating himself in an upholstered armchair on one side of the room, Gregory noticed Queen Victoria eying them from a small portrait on the wall behind the desk. The Chief Inspector looked at each of the men in turn as if counting them or trying to memorize their faces. One of the side walls was covered by a huge map of southern England; on the wall opposite there was a dark shelf lined with books.
"Gentlemen," the Chief Inspector said at last, "I want you to go over every aspect of this case. Since the official record has been my only source of information, I think we should start with a brief summary. Farquart, perhaps you can begin."
"Certainly, sir, but I don't know anything about the beginning of the case except what's in the reports."
"There were no reports at the very beginning," commented Gregory somewhat too loudly. Everyone turned to look at him. With exaggerated casualness he began to rummage energetically in his pocket as if looking for a cigarette.
Farquart straightened up in his chair.
"The affair began around the middle of last November, but there may have been some earlier incidents that were ignored at the time. The first report to the police was made three days before Christmas, but an investigation in January showed that these corpse incidents began much earlier. The report was made in the town of Engender, and it was, strictly speaking, semiofficial in character. Plays, the local undertaker, complained to the commander of the district police station, who happens to be his brother-in-law, that someone was moving the bodies around during the night."
"What exactly did this moving consist of?" The Chief Inspector was methodically cleaning his glasses.
"The bodies were left in one position in the evening and found in different positions the following morning. Strictly speaking, only one body was involved — apparently a certain drowned man who —"
"Apparently?" the Chief Inspector repeated in the same indifferent tone.
Farquart straightened himself even more in his chair.
"No one thought the incident was important at the time," he explained, "and when we finally began collecting evidence it was hard to get the exact details. The undertaker isn't completely sure anymore whether the body involved was actually the drowned man's. In fact the whole report is somewhat irregular. Gibson, the Engender police commander, decided not to log any of this because he thought —"
"Do we have to go over all this again?" shouted a man who was sprawled in a chair next to the bookshelf. His legs were crossed so high that a line of bare skin was visible above his gold-colored socks.
"I'm sorry, but it's absolutely necessary," Farquart answered in a dull voice without looking at him. The Chief Inspector put on his glasses, and his face, until now a total blank, took on a kindly expression.
"We can do without the formal aspects of the investigation for the time being," he said. "Please go on, Farquart."
"Whatever you say, Chief Inspector. The second report was made in Planting, eight days after the first. Someone moving corpses at night in the cemetery mortuary again. The dead man was a stevedore named Thicker — he died after a long illness that almost bankrupted his family."
Farquart glanced out of the corner of his eye at Gregory, who was shifting around impatiently.
"The funeral was scheduled for the morning. When the family showed up at the mortuary they noticed that the body was lying face downward — that is, the back was facing upward — and that its hands were open, which gave them the impression that Thicker ... had come back to life. At least that's what the family believed. Before long, rumors about some kind of trance were circulating in the neighborhood; people said that Thicker had only seemed to be dead, then woke up, found himself in a coffin, and died of fright, this time for good.
"The whole story was nonsense," Farquart continued. "A local doctor had certified Thicker's death beyond any shadow of a doubt. But as the rumors spread through the surrounding area, attention was drawn to the fact that people had been talking for some time about so-called moving corpses that changed position during the night."
"What does 'for some time' mean?" asked the Chief Inspector.
"There's no way of knowing. The rumors referred to incidents in Shaltam and Dipper. At the beginning of January the local forces made a cursory investigation, but they didn't take the matter too seriously, so they weren't very systematic. The evidence given by the local people was partly prejudiced, partly inconsistent, and as a result the investigation was worthless. In Shaltam it involved the body of one Samuel Filthey, dead of a heart attack. According to the gravedigger, who happens to be the town drunk, Filthey is supposed to have 'turned over in the coffin' on Christmas night. No one can substantiate the story. The incident in Dipper involved the body of an insane woman that was found in the morning on the floor next to the coffin. According to the neighbors, the woman's stepdaughter, who hated her, slipped into the funeral home during the night and threw her out of her coffin. The truth is, there are so many stories and rumors that it's impossible to get your bearings. It all boils down to one person giving you the name of an alleged eyewitness, and the 'witness' sending you to someone else, and so on....
"The case would have been dropped as a sure ad acta," Farquart began speaking faster, "but on January sixteenth the corpse of one James Trayle disappeared from the mortuary in Treakhill. Sergeant Peel, on detail from our C.I.D., investigated the incident. The corpse was removed from the mortuary sometime between midnight and five in the morning, when the undertaker discovered that it was missing. The deceased was a male ... maybe forty-five years old —"
"You're not sure?" the Chief Inspector interrupted. He was sitting with his head bent as if peering at himself in a highly polished mirror. Farquart cleared his throat.
"I am sure, but that's the way it was told to me. ... Anyway, the cause of death was poisoning by illuminating gas. It was an unfortunate accident."
"Autopsy?" said the Chief Inspector, raising his eyebrows. He leaned over to the side and pulled a handle which opened the casement windows. A whiff of damp air flowed into the warm, heavy atmosphere of the room.
"There was no autopsy, but we're convinced it was an accident. Six days later, on January twenty-third, there was another incident, this time in Spittoon. The missing body belonged to one John Stevens, a twenty-eight-year-old laborer in a distillery. He died the day before, after inhaling poisonous fumes while cleaning one of the vats. The body was taken to the mortuary around three in the afternoon. The caretaker saw it for the last time around nine in the evening. In the morning it wasn't there. Sergeant Peel looked into this incident also, but nothing came of this investigation either, mainly because at the time we still hadn't thought of linking these two incidents with the earlier ones ..."
"Please keep your comments to yourself for the time being. Right now I want to concentrate on the facts," the Chief Inspector said, smiling pleasantly at Farquart. He placed his shriveled hand on the desk. Gregory couldn't help staring: the hand seemed to be completely bloodless, not a vein was visible.
"The third incident took place within the limits of Greater London in Lovering, where the Medical School has its new dissecting laboratory," Farquart continued in a dull voice, as if he had lost all interest in going on with his lengthy story. "The body of one Stewart Aloney disappeared; he was fifty years old, dead of a chronic tropical disease contracted while he was a sailor on the Bangkok run. This incident took place nine days after the other disappearances, on February second — strictly speaking, the night of the second going on the third. After this one the Yard took over. The investigation was conducted by Lieutenant Gregory, who later took command of one more case: the disappearance of a corpse from the mortuary of a suburban cemetery in Bromley on February twelfth — the incident involved the body of a woman who died after a cancer operation."
"Thank you," said the Chief Inspector. "Why isn't Sergeant Peel here?"
"He's sick, Chief Inspector, he's in the hospital," Gregory answered.
"Is that so? What's wrong with him?" The lieutenant hesitated.
"I'm not sure, but I think it has something to do with his kidneys."
"Lieutenant, tell us about your investigation."
Gregory cleared his throat, took a deep breath, and, flicking an ash into the ashtray, spoke in an unexpectedly quiet voice.
"I don't have much to brag about. All the corpses disappeared at night, there was no evidence on the scene, no signs of forcible entry. Besides, forcible entry wouldn't have been necessary since mortuaries aren't usually locked, and those that are could probably be opened with a bent nail by a child...."
"The dissecting lab was locked," said Sorensen, the medical examiner, speaking for the first time. He was sitting with his head bent backward as if to avoid drawing attention to its unpleasant angular shape, and with one finger he was massaging the swollen skin under his eyes.
It suddenly occurred to Gregory that Sorensen had done well in choosing a profession in which he associated mainly with the dead. He nodded to him with almost courtly courtesy.
"You took the words right out of my mouth. Doctor. There was an unlocked window in the room from which the corpse disappeared — in fact, it was open, as if someone had gone out through it."
"He had to get in first," Sorensen interrupted impatiently.
"A brilliant observation," Gregory replied, then regretted his words and peeked at the Chief, who remained silent, unmoving, as if he hadn't heard anything.
"The laboratory is on the first floor," the lieutenant continued after an awkward silence. "According to the janitor, the window was locked along with all the others. He swears that all the windows were locked that night — says he's absolutely certain because he checked them himself. The frost was setting in and he was afraid the radiators would freeze if the windows were open. Like most dissecting labs, they hardly give enough heat as it is. I talked to Professor Harvey — he's in charge of the place. He thinks very highly of the janitor, says he takes his work a little too seriously but that he's honest and we can believe anything he tells us."
"Are there any possible hiding places in the laboratory?" the Chief Inspector asked. He looked around at the group as if he had suddenly become aware of their presence again.
"Well, that ... would be out of the question, Chief Inspector. No one would be able to hide without the janitor's help. There's no furniture except for the dissecting tables, no dark corners or alcoves ... in fact, nothing at all except a few closets for the students' coats and equipment, and even a child couldn't fit into any of them."
"Do you mean that literally?"
"That they're too small for a child," the Chief Inspector said quietly.
"Well ..." The lieutenant wrinkled his brow. "A child might manage to squeeze into one, but at best only a seven- or eight-year-old."
"Did you measure the closets?"
"Yes." The answer was uttered without hesitation. "I measured all of them because I thought one might be bigger than the others. They all turned out to be the same size. Aside from the closets, there are some toilets, washrooms, and classrooms; a refrigerator and a storeroom in the basement; the professor's office and some teachers' rooms upstairs. Harvey says that the janitor checks each of the rooms every night, sometimes more than once — in my opinion, he tends to overdo it. Anyway, no one could have managed to hide there."
"What about a child?" the Chief Inspector asked in a quiet voice. He took off his eyeglasses as if to soften the sharpness of his gaze. Gregory shook his head violently.
"No, it would have been impossible. A child couldn't have opened the windows. They have locks at the top and bottom, released by levers set in the window frames. Just like here." Gregory pointed to the window, from which a cold draft was entering the room. "The levers are very tight and it's hard to move them. Even the janitor complained about it. Besides, I tried them myself."
"Did he call your attention to the fact that the levers are tight?" Sorensen asked, smiling inscrutably in a way that irritated Gregory. He would have preferred to let the question pass without an answer, but the Chief Inspector was looking at him expectantly, so he replied without much enthusiasm.
"The janitor didn't mention it until he saw me opening and closing them. He's worse than an old maid. A terrible pain in the neck," Gregory added emphatically, looking, as if by chance, at Sorensen. "He was very pleased with himself too. Of course that's natural enough for someone his age," he added in a conciliatory manner. "He's about sixty years old, sclero —" Gregory stopped abruptly, embarrassed. The Chief Inspector wasn't any younger than that. He searched desperately for a way to get around the obvious meaning of his concluding words but couldn't think of anything. The other men remained absolutely still, their silence arousing Gregory's resentment. The Chief Inspector put on his glasses.
"Are you finished?"
"Yes sir," Gregory faltered, "yes. At least as far as these three incidents are concerned. In the last case, though, I looked over the surrounding area very carefully — I was particularly interested in any unusual activity near the lab that night. The constables on duty in the neighborhood hadn't noticed anything suspicious. Also, when I took over the case I tried to find out as much as I could about the earlier incidents; I talked to Sergeant Peel and I went to all the other places but I didn't find a thing, not one piece of evidence of any kind. Nothing, absolutely nothing. The woman who died of cancer and the laborer both disappeared in similar circumstances. In the morning, when someone from the family arrived at the mortuary, the coffin was empty."
"Yes," said the Chief Inspector. "That will be all for now. Mr. Farquart, will you continue?"
"Of course, sir. Do you want to hear about the more recent cases, sir? Right, whatever you say, sir."
"He should be in the Navy," Gregory thought, sighing to himself. "He always acts like he's at the morning flag raising, and he'll never change."
"The next disappearance took place in Lewes seven days later, on February nineteenth. It involved a young stevedore who was run over by a car — ruptured liver with internal bleeding. The operation was a success, as the doctors say, but the patient didn't survive. Anyway, the body disappeared before dawn. We were able to pinpoint the time because around three o'clock that morning a certain Burton died. His sister — he lived with a sister — was so afraid to stay alone with the deceased in the same apartment that she woke up the local undertaker. The body was delivered to the funeral home at exactly three in the morning. Two employees put it next to the stevedore's body...."
"You were going to say something?" asked the Chief Inspector.
Farquart bit his mustache.
"No ..." he said after a moment.
The steady drone of airplane engines could be heard outside the building. Overhead, an unseen airplane flew past on its way southward. The windowpanes rattled in quiet unison.
"That is," Farquart added with an air of decision, "in arranging the newly delivered body, one of the employees moved the stevedore's body because it was in his way. Well ... he claims it wasn't cold."
Excerpted from "The Investigation"
Copyright © 2017 Stanislaw Lem.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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