7

Leaving the empty car in the courtyard, Gregory returned to the lobby. Sciss was leaning on the bannister of the staircase with his eyes half-closed, a vague, pained smile playing about his lips. Gregory waited without saying good night. Breathing deeply — it sounded like a sigh — Sciss suddenly opened his eyes. The two men stared at each other.

“I don’t know,” Sciss said at last. “Do you have… time?”

Gregory nodded his head and quietly followed him up the stairs. Neither spoke. Outside his apartment Sciss stopped with his hand on the doorknob as if he wanted to say something; finally he swung the door open.

“It’s dark inside, let me go first,” he said.

There was a light on in the foyer. The kitchen door was open but there was no one there, only a tea kettle whistling quietly on a low flame. They hung up their coats.

The living room, bathed in light from a white globe on the ceiling, had a neat, festive look. The wall behind the desk was lined with bookshelves; pens and pencils were arranged symmetrically on the desk; a glass table stood just below the bookshelves, with two low green club chairs, their bluish cushions decorated in a geometric pattern, pushed next to it. The table was set with cups, whiskey glasses, trays of fruit and pastries. Spoons, forks — everything was arranged for two people. Sciss rubbed his bony, arthritic hands.

“Why don’t you sit down next to the shelves where it’s more comfortable,” he said with perhaps a little too much liveliness. “I had a guest this afternoon — let me offer you some of the leftovers.”

Gregory wanted to say something lighthearted to help Sciss out, but nothing came to mind. He moved one of the chairs and sat down on the arm, turning toward the books.

He found himself facing an impressive multilingual collection of scientific literature — one shelf was filled with works on anthropology, a plastic card attached to the next shelf had the word “Mathematics” written on it. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed some photographs in an open drawer of the desk, but when he turned in their direction, Sciss moved — or, rather, practically hurled himself across the room on his long legs — hitting the drawer with his knee and noisily slamming it.

“A mess, it’s a mess,” he explained with a tense look. He rubbed his hands again and seated himself on the radiator next to the window.

“Your new attempt to find me guilty is just as half-baked as your last one,” he said. “You try too hard…”

“You’ve had several bad experiences,” Gregory commented. He picked a thick volume at random and flipped the pages; algebraic formulas leaped past his eyes.

“Quite true. Do you prefer coffee or tea?” Sciss remembered his responsibilities as a host.

“I’ll take whatever you’re having.”

“Good.”

Sciss went into the kitchen. Gregory put back the book, which was entitled Principia Mathematica, and stared at the closed desk drawer for a moment. He was tempted to take a look inside but didn’t dare. The sound of Sciss bustling about in the kitchen could be heard through the open door. After a few minutes the scientist came back with the tea, poured it into the cups in a high, narrow stream, and sat down opposite Gregory.

“Be careful, it’s hot,” he cautioned. “Are you saying that I’m no longer under suspicion?” he asked Gregory after a moment. “You know something? I could have had motives you never even considered. Let’s say I was trying to get rid of a body — someone I killed, just for the sake of argument. In order to bring about a situation in which it was easy to dispose of it, I got hold of a whole batch of bodies, began moving them around, and created a general confusion in which my victim was lost completely. What do you say to that?”

“Too literary,” Gregory replied. He was browsing through a thick, glossy-paged volume on psychometrics. “One of Chesterton’s stories has the same plot.”

“I never read it. I don’t like Chesterton. In your opinion, then, what made me do all this?”

“I don’t know. I can’t think of any possible motive. That’s why I don’t suspect you anymore.”

“Did you dig into my past? Did you draw up a chronology and a map showing all my movements? Did you look for clues and fingerprints? With only one exception, I wasn’t at all inconvenienced by your investigation — I didn’t even notice it.”

“The overall picture didn’t fall into place so I skipped the usual routine. Besides, I’m not a very systematic investigator. I improvise, or, you might say, I tend to be disorderly,” Gregory admitted. There was something stiff in among the pages of the book; he began turning them carefully. “I even have a theory to justify my careless work habits: until you have a specific theoretical structure to fit the facts into, there’s no point in collecting evidence.”

“Are you an intuitionist? Have you ever read Bergson?”

“Yes.”

The pages opened. Between them there was a large photographic negative. It was transparent, but by pressing it against the white paper Gregory was able to make out the silhouette of a human figure bent backward. Very slowly he raised the book closer to his eyes, peeping over it at Sciss. With one finger he moved the negative along the blank area between two columns of print, continuing the conversation at the same time:

“Sheppard told me you were at his place when the body in Lewes disappeared. So you have an alibi. I was acting like a dog looking for a buried bone — running from tree to tree and digging, even though there was nothing there. I was fooling myself. There was nothing for me to dig in, no grounds, nothing…”

Gregory systematically moved the photo along the white strip between the columns until he could make out the image on the negative. It was a picture of a naked woman leaning back against a table. One arm, resting against a stack of black bricks that reached almost to her nipple, was partly covered by her dark, flowing hair — light-colored, in reality. Her long legs stretched down from the table, entwined in a string of white beads. In her other hand she was holding a blurred object of some kind, pressing it against her black, tightly closed thighs. Her lips were open in an indescribable grimace that exposed her dark pointed teeth.

“I think I’ve already made myself enough of a fool in front of you,” Gregory continued.

He glanced suddenly at Sciss. The latter, smiling faintly, nodded his head.

“I don’t know. You present another point of view. If we were living at the time of the Inquisition you might have gotten what you wanted.”

“What does that mean?” Gregory asked. He took another quick look at the negative and suddenly realized that the beads were really a small chain. The girl’s ankles were shackled. Frowning, he slammed the book shut, put it back in its place, and eased himself gently from the arm into the chair.

“I have very little resistance to pain, you know,” Sciss continued. “Torture would squeeze every bit of evidence out of me. You would probably have broken every bone in my body to save your peace of mind — or, I should say, to maintain your mental equilibrium.”

“I understand Sheppard about as much as I do this case,” Gregory said slowly. “He assigned me to a hopeless job, and at the same time, right from the beginning, he didn’t give me a chance. But you’re probably not interested in any of this.”

“As a matter of fact, I’m not.” Sciss put his empty cup down on the table. “I did what I could.”

Gregory stood up and began to walk around the room. On the opposite wall there was a framed photograph, a large-sized picture of a work of sculpture, a good amateur study of light and shadow effects.

“Did you do this?”

“Yes.”

Sciss didn’t turn his head.

“It’s very good.”

Sweeping his eyes around the room, Gregory recognized the desk as the table in the negative. Those bricks — they were books, he thought. He checked the windows; quite ordinary, except that they were provided with black shades, now raised and tightly rolled.

“I didn’t think you had any artistic interests,” he said, returning to the small table. Sciss blinked and got to his feet with a certain amount of difficulty.

“I used to amuse myself with that kind of thing a long time ago. I have quite a few pictures like that one; would you like to see some of them?”

“Very much so.”

“Just a minute.” He looked through his pockets. “What did I do with my keys? Probably still in my coat.”

He went out, leaving the door open, and turned on the light in the foyer. He was gone for the longest time. In his absence Gregory was tempted to look at the volume on psychometrics again, but he decided not to take the risk. All of a sudden, he heard a scuffling noise — it sounded like something ripping, a piece of material being torn; Sciss appeared in the doorway. He was completely transformed. Straightened up, taking unnaturally long steps, he rushed toward Gregory as if he wanted to attack him. He was breathing noisily. Two steps before he reached Gregory he opened his hand. Something white fell out of it — a crumpled scrap of paper. Gregory recognized the napkin. Floating gently downward, it fell onto the floor. The corners of Sciss’s narrow lips were contracted in an expression of unspeakable loathing. Gregory’s cheeks and face began to burn as if they had been scalded.

“What do you want from me, you worm?” Sciss screamed in a falsetto voice, almost choking on the words. “A confession? Here’s your confession: it was me. Do you hear? It was me! All me! I planned it, set it up, and got rid of the bodies. I played with the corpses as if they were dolls — I felt like doing it, do you understand? Only don’t come near me, you worm, because I might vomit!!!” His face was livid. Backing up to the desk and supporting himself on it, he fell into a chair; with trembling hands he plucked a glass vial out of his watch pocket, pulled the cork out with his teeth, panting, and sucked in a few drops of the oily liquid. His breathing slowly eased and became deeper. Propping his head against a row of books on the shelf and spreading his legs apart, he forced himself to breathe more regularly. His eyes were closed. Finally he came to himself and sat up. Gregory’s face was burning; he watched without moving from his place.

“Go away. Please go away,” Sciss said in a hoarse voice, not opening his eyes. Gregory couldn’t move — it was as if he had taken root in the floor. He stood silently, wailing for God knows what.

“You won’t go? All right then!” Sciss stood up, coughing and gasping violently. He stretched himself, touched his shirt collar, which he had unbuttoned just a moment before, smoothed out his suit, and walked into the foyer. A moment later the outside door slammed.

Gregory was alone in the apartment, free to look through the drawers, the whole desk; he walked over to it, but even as he did so he knew he wasn’t going to search it. Lighting a cigarette he paced from wall to wall, trying unsuccessfully to think. He crushed the cigarette, looked around, shook his head, and went into the foyer. His coat was lying on the floor; when he picked it up he saw that it had been torn almost in half by a strong pull along the back; the loop and a small fragment of material were still on the hanger. He was standing with the coat in his hand when the telephone began to ring. He listened intently. The telephone kept ringing. He went back into the room and waited for it to stop, but the ringing continued. “Too few scruples and not enough results,” he thought. “I’m a snake. No, what was it? A worm.” He picked up the receiver.

“Hello.”

“You? How is it that…” He recognized Sheppard’s voice.

“Yes, it’s me. How… how did you know I was here?” Gregory asked. He suddenly became aware that his knees felt like rubber.

“Where else would you be in the middle of the night if you weren’t at home,” Sheppard answered. “Will you be there long? Is Sciss around?”

“No, Sciss isn’t here. He’s not in the apartment at all.”

“Well, who is? His sister?” Sheppard’s tone was severe.

“No, no one at all…”

“What did you say? You’re there alone? How did you get in?” Suspicion and distaste were evident in the Chief Inspector’s voice.

“We came here together, but he… walked out. We had… there was an argument,” Gregory said with great difficulty. “I… then, that is, tomorrow, I’ll be able… oh, the hell with it. What’s wrong? Why did you call?”

“Well, it happened. Williams is dead. You know who I mean.”

“I know.”

“He regained consciousness before he died and wanted to make a statement. I tried everything to get hold of you — I even sent out a radio call.”

“I… I’m sorry, I didn’t know…”

“There’s nothing to apologize for. We taped the statement. I want you to hear it.”

“Today?”

“Why not? Are you waiting for Sciss?”

“No, no… I was just going to leave…”

“Good. If you feel up to it, I want you to come over to my house right now. I’d rather not put this off until tomorrow.”

“I’ll be right over,” said Gregory in a dull voice. Then, remembering his coat, he added quickly:

“I have to stop at my place first. It’ll only take half an hour.”

Sheppard hung up. Gregory returned to the foyer, picked up his coat, threw it over his arm, and ran down the stairs. A quick look into the courtyard showed that the gray Chrysler was gone. He caught a taxi around the corner and went to the Savoy, where he transferred to the Buick. The motor was cold; listening intently to its rumbling while trying to get it started, he could only think about one thing: what would Sheppard say.

There was a no-parking sign on the street outside the Fenshawe house, but he ignored it, running up to the front door along a wet sidewalk that glistened like a mirror in the reflected light of the street lamps. He tried unsuccessfully to unlock the front door with his key, realizing with surprise that it was open. That had never happened before. The big entrance hall, usually completely dark, was faintly lit by a slow-moving, flickering reflection that rhythmically dimmed and intensified on the vaulted ceiling high above the stairs. Walking on tiptoe, Gregory went upstairs, coming to a stop at the door to the mirrored drawing room.

Where there had been a table before, now there was a platform covered with rugs, a row of lit candles along each side of it. In the corner mirrors, the reflected glow of the candles was heightened by the glimmering of the street lights outside. The air was filled with the odor of melted tallow; blue and yellow flames fluttered restlessly. The whole sight was so unexpected that Gregory stood immobilized for a long while, staring at the empty, oblong space between the double row of candles. He looked up slowly, seemingly counting the rainbow-colored sparks flaring up and waning in the low-hanging chandelier, then looked around — the room was deserted. He had to pass through it; sneaking along the wall, he moved on tiptoe like a burglar, his foot brushing against an indistinct, coiled, thin, twisted, whitish-colored wood shaving. Just as he reached the open door he heard the sound of footsteps approaching. Quickening his pace in the hope of reaching his room without a meeting, he saw some yellow sparks flickering in the dimness in front of him; an instant later Mrs. Fenshawe appeared in the room. She was walking slowly, a purple shawl embroidered with shimmering gold sequins flung over her black dress. Gregory didn’t know what to do; he wanted to avoid her but there was no way to get past. She seemed to be in a trance; he backed up to get out of her way and kept walking backward, with Mrs. Fenshawe striding along beside him, apparently unaware of his presence. Stumbling against the edge of a rug, Gregory came to a stop. They were back among the mirrors.

“My life!” Mrs. Fenshawe burst into tears. “My life! Too soon! Too soon! They took him away!” She drew so close to him that he could feel her breath on his face. “He knew he couldn’t hold out much longer; he knew, he knew, and even today he told me so! Today started like every other day, why couldn’t it have gone on that way? Why?!” She repeated this over and over, burning his face with her breath, until finally the words, though they were uttered from deep pain, stopped having any meaning for him.

“Oh… I didn’t know… I’m very sorry,” Gregory mumbled, completely at a loss, feeling that he had gotten stuck in an absurdity of some kind, an incomprehensible misfortune, a theater of unreal events and real despair. Mrs. Fenshawe stretched out her dark, tendinous hand from under the shawl and grabbed him violently by the wrist.

“What happened? Did Mr… Mr…” He didn’t finish — her voiceless sobbing and the spasmodic movements of her head were answer enough. “It was so sudden,” he mumbled. The word brought her around. She stared at him with a strained, insistent, almost hate-filled look.

“No! Not sudden! Not sudden! No! Years, sir, years, and he always managed to avert it, we postponed it together; he had the best care a human being could have. I massaged him every night, and when it was very bad I held his hand until dawn, I sat with him. He wasn’t able to stay by himself except in the daytime; he didn’t need me during the day, but now of course it’s nighttime, it’s night!!!” She began screaming horribly again, her voice prolonged in an unnatural ringing echo. “Night…” The cry was audibly interrupted and distorted somewhere in the depths of the house, somewhere in the darkness of the rooms that opened on the staircase, somewhere above the head of the woman, who was digging into Gregory’s wrist convulsively and pounding his chest with her other hand. Astounded, choked by such frankness, such outspokenness, and such deep despair, Gregory was beginning to understand everything. He stared at the moving flames that lit up the empty, rug-covered place in the middle of the room.

“Help me, oh please help me!” Mrs. Fenshawe called out, whether to God or to him Gregory didn’t know, and suddenly her cries were drowned in sobs. One of her tears, shining in the candlelight, fell on the lapel of his suit. Her weeping brought relief for both of them. In a moment Mrs. Fenshawe calmed down, and in an amazingly peaceful although shaky voice, she said:

“Thank you. I’m very sorry. Please… please go. No one will bother you. No one! Oh… there’s no one…”

With these words her voice came dangerously close to the crazy screaming again. Gregory was terrified, but Mrs. Fenshawe, gathering up the folds of her purple shawl, went toward the opposite door. He reached the hallway and, almost breaking into a run, rushed to his room, closing the door carefully and firmly behind him.

Safe inside, Gregory turned on the small lamp and sat at his desk, staring at it until his eyes were dazzled by the light.

So he was sick and had died. Some kind of prolonged, peculiar, chronic illness. She’d been nursing him. Only at night — in the daytime he wanted to be by himself. What was wrong with him? Maybe asthma or some other kind of breathing disorder. She mentioned massages. Something to do with the nerves? Insomnia too, or maybe he had heart trouble. He looked so healthy though — that is, he didn’t seem to be sick. How old could he have been? Around seventy, at least. It must have happened today — that is, yesterday. Gregory hadn’t been home for almost twenty-four hours; the death must have occurred that morning or afternoon, and the body had been taken away in the evening. Otherwise, why the candles?

Gregory’s legs were beginning to fall asleep. “It’s all clear now,” he thought. “He was sick and she was nursing him, some kind of complicated, all-night treatment, but when did she sleep?”

Suddenly remembering that Sheppard was still waiting, he sprang to his feet. He grabbed an old coat from his closet, threw it on, and walked out on tiptoe. The house was still. The candles in the drawing room were beginning to burn out; he made his way downstairs in the remnants of their light. When he got into the car he was amazed to discover that the whole commotion had lasted less than a half hour. He passed Westminster at one o’clock.

Sheppard himself opened the door, same as last time. They walked upstairs in silence.

“I’m sorry you had to wait so long,” Gregory said while hanging up his coat, “but my landlord died and I had to… uh… pay my respects.”

Sheppard nodded his head coldly and pointed toward an open door. The room hadn’t changed — but with the lights on the collection of photographs looked different, and it occurred to Gregory that there was something pretentious about them. Still not saying anything, Sheppard sat down behind his desk; it was covered with papers and folders. For the moment Gregory remained under the spell of the dark, funereal atmosphere of the Fenshawe house, the unexpectedly silent wall opposite his bed, and the dying candles. He rubbed his wrist involuntarily, as if trying to wipe away the remaining traces of Mrs. Fenshawe’s touch. Sitting down opposite the Chief Inspector, he realized for the first time that night how tired he was. All at once it occurred to him that Sheppard was waiting for an account of his visit with Sciss. He responded to the thought as reluctantly as he would have to a demand that he betray someone very dear to him.

“I spent the evening tailing Sciss,” he began slowly, then stopped abruptly and studied the Chief Inspector’s face. “Should I go on?” he asked.

“I think it would be useful.”

Gregory nodded his head. It was hard for him to describe the evening’s events, so he dispensed with commentary and kept to the details. Sheppard leaned back in his chair and listened; only once, when he heard about the photograph, was there any sign of a reaction.

Gregory paused, but the Chief Inspector remained silent. When he finished, he looked up and saw a smile disappearing from Sheppard’s face.

“Well, did you finally get him to confess?” the Chief Inspector asked. “As far as I can tell, you stopped suspecting Sciss at the very moment that he left you alone in his apartment. I’m right, aren’t I?”

Gregory was stunned. He wrinkled his brow, not certain how to reply. The Chief Inspector was right, but until now he himself hadn’t been aware of the change in his thinking about Sciss.

“Yes,” he muttered. “I guess so. Anyway, even before then I didn’t have much hope of accomplishing anything. I was following the path of least resistance, that’s all. I latched on to poor Sciss because there was no one else and I needed a suspect; who knows? — maybe I deliberately tried to compromise him. It’s possible — I don’t know why, maybe to get the upper hand in my own mind.” Gregory became more and more confused. “I know that none of this makes any sense,” he finished. “In the long run I don’t know a thing about Sciss, not even what he’s capable of doing.”

“Would you like to know?” the Chief Inspector asked in a sarcastic voice. “You might find him visiting his mother’s grave, or trying to pick up a prostitute near Picadilly. That’s more or less his range. I don’t want to sound like your police auntie, but in this line of work you really should be prepared for an occasional moral hangover. Now, what do you want to do next?”

Gregory shrugged his shoulders.

“A few weeks ago I was pushing all of you, warning about trouble from the press and the public,” Sheppard continued, playing with a small metal ruler. “But this time none of what I expected came to pass, in fact nothing came of it at all. There were a couple of articles connecting the case to flying saucers and — paradoxically — that was the end of the publicity. A few letters to the editor — and it was over. I hadn’t realized how indifferent we’ve become to the extraordinary nowadays. If a moon walk is possible, so is everything else. So we’re on our own with this case, Lieutenant, and we might as well just shelve it quietly…”

“Is that what you called to tell me?”

The Chief Inspector didn’t say anything.

After a moment or so Gregory answered his own question.

“You wanted me to hear what Williams said, right? Maybe… I should go now. It’s very late and I don’t want to take up any more of your time.”

Sheppard rose to his feet, opened a flat case containing a tape recorder, and connected the speaker.

“The recording was made at his request,” he said to Gregory. “The technicians were in a rush and the recorder wasn’t working too well, so the sound isn’t the best. You’d better move closer. Now listen to this.”

He threaded the tape into the spool, plugged in the extension cord, and adjusted the modulation knob; the recorder pulsated a few times; a steady hum emanated from the speaker, followed by several knocks and some scratching noises, and at last a far-off voice, distorted as if it was coming through a metal tube.

“May I speak now? Commissioner, Doctor, may I? I had a good flashlight… my wife gave it to me just this year, for the night shift. First time I went around he’s lying there the usual way, with his hands like this; next time around I hear a crash like a bag of potatoes is falling. I shine my light through the second window — he’s on the floor. I figure he must have fell out of the coffin but he’s moving already. I think I must be dreaming all this so I rub my eyes with snow, but he keeps shuffling along, falling all over the place as he goes. Commissioner, I don’t know how long this went on, but it was long enough, believe me. I kept shining my light but I didn’t know if I should go in or not, and there he is, flapping around and turning over and finally he reaches the window and I couldn’t see him too good because he was crawling right under the window, making a hell of a racket all the time. Then the shutters come open.”

An indistinct voice in the background asked something; it was difficult to make out the words.

“That I don’t know,” resounded a voice closer to the microphone. “And I didn’t see if any glass was falling either. Maybe it did, but I can’t say. I was standing over on the side, I can’t… can’t manage to show you. So I was standing this way and he was sitting or whatever he was doing this way — all I could see was his head — I could have touched it, Commissioner, it was closer to me than this here table is. I shined my light inside and lit the place up real good and there was nothing there, only the empty coffin with some shavings in it and nothing else and no one was there. I lean over and take a look in the window and there he is down below me; his legs going a dozen ways at the same time and he’s rocking back and forth like a drunk, Doctor, he’s crawling along on his side and tapping away, like a blind man tapping his cane, except he was doing it with his hands. Or maybe he had something. ‘Halt,’ I says to him, ‘what d’you think you’re doing, what’s going on here?’ — that’s what I said, or something like that.”

A short silence followed, except for a steady, delicate creaking, as if someone was scratching the microphone with a needle.

“He climbs up a bit, then falls over again. Like I told you, I ordered him to stop, but he wasn’t alive; at first I thought maybe he wasn’t dead and had just now woke up in the coffin, but he wasn’t alive, he didn’t have any eyes like, I mean only — you know what I mean, so he couldn’t see anything and he didn’t feel anything. I mean if he could feel he wouldn’t keep banging himself around on those boards, and he was banging away like the devil himself was inside him. I yelled something at him — I don’t even know what — and he kept turning this way and that way and finally he grabs the windowsill with his teeth — What?”

Once again a muffled, indistinct voice asking questions; only the last word was comprehensible: “… teeth?”

“So I shined my light on his face from close up, it was kind of blurred like, well, kind of like a dead fish, and what happened next I don’t know.”

Another voice, closer and lower, asked:

“When did you draw your pistol? Did you try to shoot him?”

“My pistol? I can’t say if I drew it or not because I don’t remember. You say I ran away? How did that happen? I don’t know. What’s this on my eye? Doc… doctor…”

A far-off voice.

“… there’s nothing there, Williams. Close your eyes, that’s good; you’ll feel better in a minute.”

A woman’s voice from the back:

“He’s done for, he’s done for.”

Again Williams’s voice, breathing faster:

“I can’t go on like this. If it… am I done for? Is my wife here? No? Why not? She is? What damned good are the regulations if they don’t say nothing about… this… they don’t cover…”

The sounds of a brief dispute could be heard; someone said out loud:

“That’s enough!” Another voice interrupted:

“Did you see the car, Williams, the headlights?”

“Car… what car?” Williams repeated in a weak, stuttering voice. “I can’t get it out of my head, how he was rocking back and forth on his side and couldn’t do nothing, and how he was dragging those shavings along with him… if there was a rope I might have understood it, but there wasn’t no rope…”

“What rope?”

“A doormat? No. Rope? I don’t know. Where? God, no one ever saw anything like it. He looked like he didn’t like the light shining on him, but that’s impossible, Commissioner, isn’t it? The shavings — no! Straw… won’t… hold…”

A long silence, interrupted by scratching, blurred noises — it sounded as if several persons were carrying on a furious whispered conversation at some distance from the microphone. A short choking, the sound of hiccups, and suddenly the voice was gruffer:

“I’ll give it all away, I don’t want anything for myself. Where is she? Is this her hand? Is that you?”

Again scratching, tapping as if something heavy was being moved, the sound of cracking glass, the hiss of escaping gas, some sharp static, then a deafening bass voice uttering the words:

“Turn it off, there won’t be any more.”

Sheppard stopped the reels, the tape stood still. He returned to his place behind the desk. Gregory was hunched over, pressing his hand against the arm of the chair and staring at his own whitened knuckles. He seemed to have forgotten about Sheppard.

“If I could only turn everything back,” he thought. “The whole thing, all of it, to about a month ago — no, not enough, maybe a year. Ridiculous. I can’t escape…”

“Chief Inspector,” he said at last, “if you had picked someone else instead of me, you’d probably have a perpetrator locked up for this by now. Do you understand what I’m talking about?”

“Maybe. Why don’t you continue.”

“Continue? When I was studying physics, the section on optical illusions in my textbook had an illustration that was either a white wine glass against a dark background or two dark human profiles against a white background. You only saw one or the other, and as a student I took it for granted that only one of the two images was genuine, although to this day I still can’t say which. That’s funny, isn’t it, Chief Inspector? Do you remember the conversation about order we once had in this room? About the natural order of things. You said that the natural order can be imitated.”

“No, you said that.”

“Did I? Maybe so. But what if it isn’t really that way? What if there isn’t anything to imitate? What if the world isn’t scattered around us like a jigsaw puzzle — what if it’s like a soup with all kinds of things floating around in it, and from time to time some of them get stuck together by chance to make some kind of whole? What if everything that exists is fragmentary, incomplete, aborted, events with ends but no beginnings, events that only have middles, things that have fronts or rears but not both, with us constantly making categories, seeking out, and reconstructing, until we think we can see total love, total betrayal and defeat, although in reality we are all no more than haphazard fractions. Our faces and our fates are shaped by statistics — we human beings are the resultant of Brownian motion — incomplete sketches, randomly outlined projections. Perfection, fullness, excellence are all rare exceptions — they occur only because there is such an excess, so unimaginably much of everything! The daily commonplace is automatically regulated by the world’s vastness, its infinite variety; because of it, what we see as gaps and breaches complement each other; the mind, for its own self-preservation, finds and integrates scattered fragments. Using religion and philosophy as the cement, we perpetually collect and assemble all the garbage comprised by statistics in order to make sense out of things, to make everything respond in one unified voice like a bell chiming to our glory. But it’s only soup… The mathematical order of the universe is our answer to the pyramids of chaos. On every side of us we see bits of life that are completely beyond our understanding — we label them unusual, but we really don’t want to acknowledge them. The only thing that really exists is statistics. The intelligent person is the statistical person. Will a child be beautiful or ugly? Will he enjoy music? Will he get cancer? It’s all decided by a throw of the dice. At the very moment of our conception — statistics! Statistics determine which clusters of genes our bodies will be created from, statistics determine when we’re going to die. A normal statistical distribution decides everything: whether I’m going to meet a woman and fall in love, how long I’m going to live, maybe even whether I’m going to be immortal. From time to time, it may be, statistics participate in some things blindly, by accident — beauty and lameness, for example. But explicit processes will cease to exist before long: soon even despair, beauty, happiness, and ugliness will result from statistics. Our knowledge is underlined by statistics — nothing exists except blind chance, the eternal arrangement of fortuitous patterns. An infinite number of Things taunt our fondness for Order. Seek, and ye shall find; in the end ye shall always find, if you only look with enough fervor; statistics doesn’t exclude anything, and therefore it renders everything possible, or more or less probable. History, on the other hand, comes true by Brownian motion, a statistical dance of particles that never stop dreaming about another temporal world…”

“Maybe even God only exists from time to time,” the Chief Inspector added quietly. He had leaned forward, and with his face averted was listening attentively to what Gregory was spewing forth with such difficulty from deep inside himself.

“Maybe,” Gregory replied indifferently. “But the gaps in his existence are very wide, you know.”

He stood up, walked over to the wall, and stared at a photograph without seeing it.

“Maybe even we…” he began hesitantly, “even we only exist from time to time; I mean: sometimes less, sometimes almost disappearing, dissolving, and then, with a sudden spasm, a sudden spurt that disintegrates the memory center, we merge for a moment… for a day… and we become—”

He stopped abruptly. After a moment he spoke again in a different tone of voice.

“Forgive me for going on like that. It’s all nonsense. Maybe… I’ve had it for today. I think it’s time for me to go.”

“Can’t you stay a little longer?”

Gregory paused. He gave Sheppard a surprised look.

“I suppose so, but it’s been a long day; I think—”

“Do you know Mailer trucking?”

“Mailer?”

“Big trucks with red and gold stripes. You must have seen them.”

“Oh sure, ‘Mailer Goes Anywhere.’ ” Gregory recalled the slogan in their ads. “What about it?” He didn’t finish.

Not moving from his chair, Sheppard handed him a newspaper and pointed to a short paragraph at the bottom of the page. “Yesterday afternoon a Mailer Company truck crashed into a freight train near Amber. The driver, who drove onto the railroad tracks even though he had seen the warning signal, was killed instantly. None of the train crew was hurt.”

Gregory looked up at the Chief Inspector with a puzzled expression.

“He was probably on his way back to Tunbridge Wells with an empty truck. Mailer has a garage there,” said Sheppard. “About a hundred vehicles. They transport food in refrigerator trucks, mostly meat and fish. The deliveries are made at night so the shipment will be available in the morning. Each truck has a driver and a helper — they usually start out sometime in the late evening.”

“The paper only mentions a driver,” Gregory said slowly. He still didn’t understand any of this.

“That’s right. After the truck is unloaded, the driver takes it back to the garage, and the helper stays behind to help move the cargo into the warehouse.”

“The helper was lucky,” Gregory said indifferently.

“That’s for sure. These people work very hard. They have to keep their trucks rolling in all kinds of weather. Mailer services four routes — they form a cross on the map: Bromley and Levering to the north, Dover to the east, Horsham and Lewes in the west, and Brighton in the south.”

“What’s the point of all this?” Gregory asked.

“Each driver has a regular schedule. He’s on every third and fifth night, and he gets compensatory time off if road conditions are bad. The drivers weren’t too lucky this winter. Maybe you remember, there wasn’t any snow at all at the beginning of January. We had a little snow around the third week of January, and we got quite a bit of it in February. The more trouble the highway department has clearing the snow off the roads, the longer it takes the trucks to cover their routes. Their average speed was about fifty miles per hour at the beginning of January, it fell to thirty-five in February; and in March, when the thaw set in and the roads were covered with ice, it dropped another ten miles per hour.”

“What are you getting at?” Gregory asked uncomfortably. He was leaning against the desk with his hands spread wide apart, staring at the Chief Inspector. Sheppard gave him a bland look and asked:

“Did you ever drive a car in a thick fog?”

“Of course. What—”

“In that case you know what hard work it is. For hours on end there’s nothing but pea soup in front of your windshield. No matter how hard you try, you can’t see a thing. Some people open their doors and drive while leaning out, but it doesn’t do any good. You have to depend on intuition to tell you where the sides of the road are; the fog diffuses the light of your headlights and in the end you can hardly tell whether you’re going forward, sideways, or uphill; the fog is constantly rolling and swirling around you and your eyes start tearing from the strain of trying to see through it. After a while you start seeing things — strange things… moving shadows, weird shapes deep in the fog; all alone in a dark car you lose your perception, you can hardly feel your own body — you can’t even tell if your hands are still on the steering wheel and you begin to feel numb — fear is the only thing that keeps you going. So you keep driving that way, with the sweat dripping down your back and face, the motor droning monotonously in your ears, alternately dozing off and waking up with a spasmodic twitch. It’s like a nightmare. Try to imagine what it’s like to go through that year after year. Furthermore, imagine that a long time ago you began seeing things, having visions, peculiar thoughts that you wouldn’t dare tell anyone about, confide in anyone… thoughts about the world maybe, or about things no one should believe in, or about how you should have acted toward other people while they were still alive or even now that they’re dead. During the day, at work, when you’re fully conscious, you realize that these are nothing but hallucinations, fantasies, and like any normal person you suppress them. But the thoughts go on living inside you, they appear in your dreams, they become more and more persistent. You learn how to hide them, you’re afraid that your reputation will be ruined if anyone finds out about them. You don’t want to be different from anyone else. Then you get a chance to earn a good salary by working nights, but of course you have to remain awake and alert all night; when you’re driving through the moors, you have plenty of time to think, especially when you’re alone in an empty eight-ton truck and can’t distract yourself by making small talk with the helper when you really… So there you are driving your truck month after month; autumn passes, whiter comes, and you’re caught in a thick fog for the first time. You try to shake yourself free of the hallucinations, you stop the truck, get out, rub your face and forehead with snow, and drive on. Hours go by. The fog is like milk all around you; it’s as if you’re surrounded by an overflowing, infinite whiteness — as if such things as ordinary roads, muddy, lit-up streets, small towns, houses never existed. You’re all alone, completely and eternally alone in the dark little cab of your truck and you stare frontward, blinking your eyes, trying to rub something out of them that becomes clearer and clearer, more and more insistent no matter how much you try. You’re driving and driving, and the vision goes on for an hour, maybe two, maybe three; finally there comes a moment in which it is so compelling, so uncontrollable, that it seizes you, it becomes you, and soon you feel better, you finally know what has to be done, so you stop the truck and get out…”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Gregory shouted. He was trembling.

“There are 218 drivers working out of the Mailer garage in Tunbridge Wells. In a group that big there’ll always be at least one who… who’s a little different. Who — let’s say — is not completely healthy. What do you think about it?”

Sheppard was calm; he was speaking in an even, almost monotonous tone, but there was something relentless in his voice.

“The incidents all took place between midnight and dawn in small provincial mortuaries. Aside from a few differences in detail, the individual cases are tied together by one connecting link — a certain consistency that no human being could have planned. No one, no human mind would have been capable of doing any of this. We’ve already agreed about that, haven’t we?

“Now, let’s look at the case in the light of certain unusual circumstances surrounding it. First, a driver’s work schedule. Second, each consecutive incident took place farther and farther away from the ‘center,’ Tunbridge Wells, and almost at the center of the ‘center’ we find the Mailer garage, with empty trucks pulling in regularly from midnight on. Why did each subsequent incident take place farther and farther away from the ‘center’? Because the average speed of the trucks was decreasing, and even though they always left Tunbridge Wells at about the same time, the drivers were getting to their destinations later and later and as a result were beginning their return trips later and later; consequently, it was taking them longer to cover the same distance.”

“How do you know?” Gregory interrupted.

“From the fact that the fog is at its worst for a period of about two hours every night. This is the period in which it is most effective in inducing fantasies and delusions in drivers making their return trips alone. Even so, if road conditions are good on the return trip, the two-hour period doesn’t affect them as much as it does when the roads are covered with snow. So we find another regular item: the more resistance the snow offers to the tires of the truck, the less resistance the driver offers to the two-hour fantasy-producing period. Furthermore, the more snow on the road, the lower the temperature, and the lower the temperature, the worse the truck’s motor performs; therefore, we find, we get a constant if we multiply the difference in temperature by the product of the time between two incidents and the distance from the center to the site of an incident. As road conditions deteriorate, the dispatcher at the Mailer garage gives the drivers longer breaks between trips. Even so, on each subsequent trip the driver has less and less endurance during the two-hour period, and as a result he covers less and less distance. The second coefficient — the time between two trips counted in days — increases proportionately, and that’s why the product remains the same, speaking roughly.”

“In other words… one of the drivers… is a paranoiac, is that it? He works on the night shift, stops his truck somewhere along the way and steals a body… but what did he do with them?”

“At dawn, when he drove out of the foggy area, he regained his senses — he was coming back into the ordinary world — so he did his best to dump the evidence of his night of insanity. There were plenty of opportunities — after all, he was covering quite a bit of territory, with plenty of hills, shallow ravines, thickets, rivers, bushes.… Terrified, unable to believe what had happened, he would resolve to get help for himself, but he was afraid he’d lose his job, so when the dispatcher gave him the date of his next trip he wouldn’t say a word and right on schedule he’d be back behind the wheel again. He must have known the topography of the whole region by memory — every road, every estate, every grade crossing, every building — he knew exactly where all the cemeteries were located…”

Gregory’s gaze moved from the Chief Inspector’s face to the open newspaper.

“That’s him,” he said.

“The madness must have increased steadily,” Sheppard answered slowly. “The memory of deeds committed, anxiety that he would be exposed, growing distrust of his friends and co-workers, sick interpretations of innocent things other people said to him — everything must have combined to make his condition worse, to increase the tension in which he was living. You can see that it must have been getting harder and harder for him to come back to his senses; his condition was deteriorating steadily, his attention span was decreasing, he was less able to concentrate and more likely to become a victim of circumstances. For example — this guy—”

Gregory suddenly walked away from the desk and sat down on a chair near the bookshelf, drawing his hand over his face.

“So that’s how it happened,” he said. “An imitation of a miracle… ha, ha… is all this true?”

“No,” Sheppard replied serenely, “but it might be. Or, strictly speaking, it can become the truth.”

“What are you trying to say? Come on, Chief Inspector, I’ve had enough fooling around.”

“This isn’t my theory, Gregory. Calm down. Out of six incidents — are you paying attention? — out of six incidents, this truck driver,” — he tapped the newspaper — “was definitely on the road near the place in question three times. In other words, three of the times, during the hours just before dawn, he drove past the places where the corpses disappeared.”

“What about the other times?” Gregory asked. Something strange was happening inside him. An unexpected feeling of relief, of hope, was expanding his chest; it seemed to him that he was breathing more easily.

“The other times? Well… about one incident… Lewes… we don’t know anything. For the second, the dead truck driver had… an alibi.”

“An alibi?”

“Yes. Not only did he have the night off but he was in Scotland for three days. We checked — there’s no doubt about it.”

“Then it wasn’t him!” Gregory stood up, he had to get on his feet; the jolt resulting from this movement knocked the newspaper off the edge of the desk.

“No, it wasn’t him. To be sure it wasn’t him, unless we classify that incident separately.”

The Chief Inspector took a quick look at Gregory, whose face was contorted in anger. “But if we don’t do that, if it wasn’t Mailer — the Mailer driver — there are still plenty of other vehicles circulating in the region at night: post office trucks, ambulances, emergency vehicles, buses… we have an endless quantity of phenomena that can be fitted into the theory.”

“Are you making fun of me?” Gregory asked.

“Of course not, I’m trying to help you,” answered the Chief Inspector.

“Thank you.”

Gregory bent down and picked up the paper.

“So this truck driver was, that is, allegedly was,” he corrected himself, “a paranoiac; in other words, sick according to all normal standards: fog times frost times insanity…” He glanced at Sheppard with a strange smile.

“And what if, by chance, purely by chance, he took a different route the other times — I mean a route that didn’t go anywhere near the mortuaries — would he still be a suspect… still a sacrificial lamb…”

Gregory sneered; he was walking around the room.

“I must know,” he said. “I have to know… right now!”

He grabbed the newspaper again and flattened it out.

“The first page is missing,” Sheppard noted, “but I can give you the details. It’s yesterday’s paper.”

“Oh!”

“No, I didn’t invent any of this. Everything I told you was verified yesterday. We worked on it all day, both the local police, and Farquart, who flew up to Scotland to check out the driver’s alibi, if you’re interested.”

“No, no, but… I want to know why you did all this.”

“Well, in the final analysis… well, because I work at Scotland Yard also,” said Sheppard.

Gregory appeared not to have heard the answer; in a state of obvious agitation he walked around the room, stopping to stare at the photograph.

“You don’t understand what I mean… This is really convenient, very, very convenient… exactly what we needed. There is a perpetrator after all, but he’s dead so we can’t question him or continue the investigation… a very humane solution — no miscarriage of justice possible, no one suffers… Did you really suspect him? Did you also… or did you only want something to match the facts that we were stuck with, the facts that forced us to take action in the first place, so you could give a semblance of order to this disorder and mark an open case closed with a nice sense of orderliness. Is that what it’s all about?”

“I don’t see any alternative,” said Sheppard indifferently. He seemed to have had enough of the conversation and was no longer looking at Gregory, who had stopped walking, occupied with a new thought.

“Of course it’s possible to interpret it your way too,” he said. “Of course! You know, I believe it when you say you want to help me. At first we couldn’t do anything with this case — not a thing — and now we can. Maybe we can shake that alibi. Or if we eliminate that one exceptional incident from the series, and maybe the other exceptions with it, the investigation moves out of the dead end. The odds are it’s an illness! You can use illness to explain the most peculiar things, even visions and stigmata, even… even miracles! You know the works of Guggenheimer, Hopley, and Wintershield, don’t you? They’re not in our library, but you must have read them.”

“The psychiatrists? Which of their books did you have in mind — they wrote quite a few.”

“The ones in which they analyze the Gospels to prove that Jesus was crazy. They created quite a stir in their time. A psychiatric analysis of Scripture leading to a diagnosis of paranoia…”

“Let me give you some advice,” said Sheppard. “These biblical analogies won’t get you anywhere. Maybe you could afford that kind of thing at the beginning of the case when you wanted to make the problem more interesting, but the investigation is over now, except for a few technicalities…”

“Do you really mean that?” Gregory asked quietly.

“Yes. Because I hope, I feel sure, that you don’t want to be left crying in the wilderness…”

“Then what am I supposed to do?” Gregory asked in a slightly deferential tone of voice, straightening up and watching the old man, who was rising from his armchair.

“We have to set up clearly defined guidelines for the future. For the foreseeable future. I’ll be waiting for you tomorrow morning at the Yard.”

“Like the last time, around ten o’clock?” There was a note of hidden amusement in Gregory’s voice.

“Yes. Will you be there?” he added casually. They looked at each other, both standing up. Gregory’s lips quivered, but he didn’t say anything. He backed up toward the door, then turned his back to Sheppard and placed his hand on the knob, constantly aware of Sheppard’s calm and steadfast gaze.

Finally opening the door, he turned and tossed the words over his shoulder.

“I’ll be there.”

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