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 “The Anomaly of the Empty Man,” a man seems to have vanished without ever exiting a room, leaving only his clothes behind. In “Balaam,” a priest and a rabbi go to Mars. Near the desert town of Oasis in the terrifying “They Bite,” you must be weary of what lurks in the corner of your eye. Private investigator Fergus O’Breen has a case involving a time machine and a locked room murder in “Elsewhen.” And a history professor uses time travel to fiddle with a presidential election in “The Other Inauguration.”
In these and half a dozen other mind-blowing short stories, Boucher deftly combines science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and horror.
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The Anomaly of the Empty Man
"This is for you," Inspector Abrahams announced wryly. Another screwy one."
I was late and out of breath. I'd somehow got entangled on Market Street with the Downtown Merchants' Association annual parade, and for a while it looked like I'd be spending the day surrounded by gigantic balloon-parodies of humanity. But it takes more than rubber Gullivers to hold me up when Inspector Abrahams announces that he's got a case of the kind he labels "for Lamb."
And San Francisco's the city for them to happen in. Nobody anywhere else ever had such a motive for murder as the butler Frank Miller in 1896, or such an idea of how to execute a bank robbery as the zany Mr. Will in 1952. Take a look at Joe Jackson's San Francisco Murders, and you'll see that we can achieve a flavor all our own. And when we do, Abrahams lets me in on it.
Abrahams didn't add any explanation. He just opened the door of the apartment. I went in ahead of him. It was a place I could have liked it if it hadn't been for what was on the floor.
Two walls were mostly windows. One gave a good view of the Golden Gate. From the other, on a fine day, you could see the Farallones, and it was a fine day.
The other two walls were records and a record player. I'd heard of the Stambaugh collection of early operatic recordings. If I'd been there on any other errand, my mouth would have watered at the prospect of listening to lost great voices.
"If you can get a story out of this that makes sense," the Inspector grunted, "you're welcome to it — at the usual fee." Which was a dinner at Lupo's Pizzeria, complete with pizza Carus', tomatoes with fresh basil and sour French bread to mop up the inspired sauce of Lupo's special calamari (squids to you). "Everything's just the way we found it."
I looked at the unfinished highball, now almost colorless with all its ice melted and its soda flat. I looked at the cylindrical ash of the cigaret which had burned itself out. I looked at the vacuum cleaner — a shockingly utilitarian object in this set for gracious living. I looked at the record player, still switched on, still making its methodical seventy-eight revolutions per minute, though there was no record on the turntable.
Then I managed to look again at the thing on the floor.
It was worse than a body. It was like a tasteless bloodless parody of the usual occupant of the spot marked X. Clothes scattered in disorder seem normal — even more normal, perhaps, in a bachelor apartment than clothes properly hung in closets. But this ...
Above the neck of the dressing gown lay the spectacles. The sleeves of the shirt were inside the sleeves of the dressing gown. The shirt was buttoned, even to the collar, and the foulard tie was knotted tight up against the collar button. The tails of the shirt were tucked properly into the zipped-up, properly belted trousers. Below the trouser cuffs lay the shoes, at a lifelike angle, with the tops of the socks emerging from them.
"And there's an undershirt under the shirt," Inspector Abrahams muttered disconsolately, "and shorts inside the pants. Complete outfit: what the well-dressed man will wear. Only no man in them."
It was as though James Stambaugh had been attacked by some solvent which eats away only flesh and leaves all the inanimate articles. Or as though some hyperspatial suction had drawn the living man out of his wardrobe, leaving his sartorial shell behind him.
I said, "Can I dirty an ashtray in this scene?"
Abrahams nodded. "I was just keeping it for you to see. We've got our pictures." While I lit up, he crossed to the record player and switched it off. "Damned whirligig gets on my nerves."
"Whole damned setup gets on mine," I said. "It's like a strip-tease version of the Mary Celeste. Only the strip wasn't a gradual tease; just abruptly, whoosh!, a man's gone. One minute he's comfortably dressed in his apartment, smoking, drinking, playing records. The next he's stark naked — and where and doing what?"
Abrahams pulled at his nose, which didn't need lengthening. "We had the Japanese valet check the wardrobe. Every article of clothing James Stambaugh owned is still here in the apartment."
"Who found him?" I asked.
"Kaguchi. The valet. He had last night off. He let himself in this morning, to prepare coffee and prairie oysters as usual. He found this."
"Blood?" I ventured.
Abrahams shook his head.
"Ten apartments in this building. Three of them had parties last night. You can figure how much help the elevator man was."
"We took a sample to the lab. Nothing but the best scotch." I frowned at the vacuum cleaner. "What's that doing out here? It ought to live in a closet."
"Puzzled Kaguchi too. He even says it was still a little warm when he found it, like it had been used. But we looked in the bag. I assure you Stambaugh didn't get sucked in there."
"Gay dog, our Mr. Stambaugh. Maybe you read Herb Caen's gossip column too? And Kaguchi gave us a little fill-in. Brothers, fathers, husbands ... Too many motives."
"But why this way?" I brooded. "Get rid of him, sure. But why leave this hollow husk ...?"
"Not just why, Lamb. How."
"How? That should be easy enough to —"
"Try it. Try fitting sleeves into sleeves, pants into pants, so they're as smooth and even as if they were still on the body. I've tried, with the rest of the wardrobe. It doesn't work."
I had an idea. "You don't fit 'em in," I said smugly. "You take 'em off. Look." I unbuttoned my coat and shirt, undid my tie, and pulled everything off at once. "See," I said; "sleeves in sleeves." I unzipped and stepped out of trousers and shorts. "See; pants in pants."
Inspector Abrahams was whistling the refrain of Strip Polka. "You missed your career, Lamb," he said. "Only now you've got to put your shirt tails between the outer pants and the inner ones and still keep everything smooth. And look in here." He lifted up one shoe and took out a pocket flash and shot a beam inside. "The sock's caught on a little snag in one of the metal eyelets. That's kept it from collapsing, and you can still see the faint impress of toes in there. Try slipping your foot out of a laced-up shoe and see if you can get that result."
I was getting dressed again and feeling like a damned fool.
"Got any other inspirations?" Abrahams grinned.
"The only inspiration I've got is as to where to go now."
"Some day," the Inspector grunted, "I'll learn where you go for your extra-bright ideas."
"As the old lady said to the elephant keeper," I muttered, "you wouldn't believe me if I told you."
The Montgomery Block (Monkey Block to natives) is an antic and reboantic warren of offices and studios on the fringe of Grant Avenue's Chinatown and Columbus Avenue's Italian-Mexican-French-Basque quarter. The studio I wanted was down a long corridor, beyond that all-American bend where the Italian newspaper Corriere del Popolo sits cater-corner from the office of Tinn Hugh Yu, Ph.D and Notary Public.
Things were relatively quiet today in Dr. Verner's studio. Slavko Catenich was still hammering away at his block of marble, apparently on the theory that the natural form inherent in the stone would emerge if you hit it often enough. Irma Borigian was running over vocal exercises and occasionally checking herself by striking a note on the piano, which seemed to bring her more reassurance than it did me. Those two, plus a couple of lads industriously fencing whom I'd never seen before, were the only members of Verner's Varieties on hand today.
Irma ah-ah-ahed and pinked, the fencers clicked, Slavko crashed, and in the midst of the decibels the Old Man stood at his five-foot lectern-desk, resolutely proceeding in quill-pen longhand with the resounding periods of The Anatomy of Nonscience, that never-concluded compendium of curiosities which was half Robert Burton and half Charles Fort.
He gave me the medium look. Not the hasty "Just this sentence" or the forbidding "Dear boy, this page must be finished"; but the in-between "One more deathless paragraph" look. I grabbed a chair and tried to watch Irma's singing and listen to Slavko's sculpting.
There's no describing Dr. Verner. You can say his age is somewhere between seventy and a hundred. You can say he has a mane of hair like an albino lion and a little goatee like a Kentucky Colonel who never heard of cigars. ("When a man's hair is white," I've heard him say, "tobacco and a beard are mutually exclusive vices.") You can mention the towering figure and the un-English mobility of the white old hands and the disconcerting twinkle of those impossibly blue eyes. And you'd still have about as satisfactory a description as when you say the Taj Mahal is a domed, square, white marble building.
The twinkle was in the eyes and the mobility was in the hands when he finally came to tower over me. They were both gone by the time I'd finished the story of the Stambaugh apartment and the empty man. He stood for a moment frowning, the eyes lusterless, the hands limp at his sides. Then, still standing like that, he relaxed the frown and opened his mouth in a resonant bellow.
"You sticks!" he roared. (Irma stopped and looked hurt.) "You stones!" (The fencers stopped and looked expectant.) "You worse than worst of those that lawless and uncertain thoughts" (Slavko stopped and looked resigned.) "imagine howling," Dr. Verner concluded in a columbine coo, having shifted in mid-quotation from one Shakespearean play to another so deftly that I was still looking for the joint.
Verner's Varieties waited for the next number on the bill. In majestic silence Dr. Verner stalked to his record player. Stambaugh's had been a fancy enough custom-made job, but nothing like this.
If you think things are confusing now, with records revolving at 78, 45, and 33 1/3 rpm, you should see the records of the early part of the century. There were cylinders, of course (Verner had a separate machine for them). Disc records, instead of our present standard sizes, ranged anywhere from seven to fourteen inches in diameter, with curious fractional stops in between. Even the center holes came in assorted sizes. Many discs were lateral-cut, like modern ones; but quite a few were hill-and-dale, with the needle riding up and down instead of sideways — which actually gave better reproduction but somehow never became overwhelmingly popular. The grooving varied too, so that even if two companies both used hill-and-dale cutting you couldn't play the records of one on a machine for the other. And just to make things trickier, some records started from the inside instead of the outer edge. It was Free Enterprise gone hogwild.
Dr. Verner had explained all this while demonstrating to me how his player could cope with any disc record ever manufactured. And I had heard him play everything on it from smuggled dubbings of Crosby blow-ups to a recording by the original Floradora Sextet — which was, he was always careful to point out, a double sextet or, as he preferred, a duodecimet.
"You are," he announced ponderously, "about to hear the greatest dramatic soprano of this century. Rosa Ponselle and Elisabeth Rethberg were passable. There was something to be said for Lillian Nordica and Lena Geyer. But listen!" And he slid the needle into the first groove.
"Dr. Verner —" I started to ask for footnotes; I should have known better.
"Dear boy ...!" he murmured protestingly, over the preliminary surface noise of the aged pressing, and gave me one of those twinkles of bluest blue which implied that surely only a moron could fail to follow the logic of the procedure.
I sat back and listened. Irma listened too, but the eyes of the others were soon longingly intent on foils and chisel. I listened casually at first, then began to sit forward.
I have heard, in person or on records, all of the venerable names which Dr. Verner mentioned — to say nothing of Tebaldi, Russ, Ritter-Ciampi, Souez and both Lehmanns. And reluctantly I began to admit that he was right; this was the dramatic soprano. The music was strange to me — a setting of the Latin text of the Our Father, surely eighteenth century and at a guess by Pergolesi; it had his irrelevant but reverent tunefulness in approaching a sacred text. Its grave sustained lilt was admirable for showing off a voice; and the voice, unwavering in its prolonged tones, incredible in its breath control, deserved all the showing off it could get. During one long phrase of runs, as taxing as anything in Mozart or Handel, I noticed Irma. She was holding her breath in sympathy with the singer, and the singer won. Irma had let out an admiring gasp before the soprano had, still on one breath, achieved the phrase.
And then, for reasons more operatic than liturgical, the music quickened. The sustained legato phrases gave way to cascades of light bright coloratura. Notes sparkled and dazzled and brightness fell from the air. It was impeccable, inapproachable — infinitely discouraging to a singer and almost shocking to the ordinary listener.
The record ended. Dr. Verner beamed around the room as if he'd done all that himself. Irma crossed to the piano, struck one key to verify the incredible note in alt upon which the singer had ended, picked up her music, and wordlessly left the room.
Slavko had seized his chisel and the fencers were picking up their foils as I approached our host. "But Dr. Verner," I led with my chin. "The Stambaugh case ..."
"Dear boy," he sighed as he readied the old one-two, "you mean you don't realize that you have just heard the solution?"
"You will have a drop of Drambuie, of course?" Dr. Verner queried formally as we settled down in his more nearly quiet inner room.
"Of course," I said. Then as his mouth opened, "'For without Drambuie,'" I quoted, "'the world might never have known the simple solution to the problem of the mislaid labyrinth.'"
He spilled a drop. "I was about to mention that very fact. How ...? Or perhaps I have alluded to it before in this connection?"
"You have," I said.
"Forgive me." He twinkled disarmingly. "I grow old, dear boy."
Ritualistically we took our first sip of Drambuie. Then:
"I well remember," Dr. Verner began, "that it was in the autumn of the year 1901 ...
... that the horror began. I was then well established in my Kensington practice, which seemed to flourish as it never had under the ministrations of its previous possessor, and in a more than comfortable financial position. I was able at last to look about me, to contemplate and to investigate the manifold pleasures which a metropolis at once so cosmopolitan and so insular as London proffers to the unattached young man. San Francisco of the same period might perhaps compare in quality; indeed my own experiences here a few years later in the singular affair of the cable cabal were not unrewarding. But a man of your generation knows nothing of those pleasures now ten lustra faded. The humours of the Music Halls, the delights of a hot bird and a cold bottle shared with a dancer from Daly's, the simpler and less expensive delights of punting on the Thames (shared, I may add, with a simpler and less expensive companion) — these claimed what portion of my time I could salvage from my practice.
But above all I was devoted to music; and to be devoted to music meant, in the London of 1901, to be devoted to — but I have always carefully refrained from the employment of veritable and verifiable names in these narratives. Let me once more be discreet, and call her simply by that affectionate agnomen by which my cousin, to his sorrow, knew her: Carina.
I need not describe Carina as a musician; you have just heard her sing Pergolesi, you know how she combined nobility and grandeur with a technical agility which these degenerate days associate only with a certain type of light soprano. But I must seek to describe her as a woman, if woman she may be called.
When first I heard the tittle-tattle of London, I paid it small need. To the man in the street (or even in the stalls) actress is still a euphemism for a harsher and shorter term, though my experience of actresses, extending as it has over three continents and more than my allotted three score and ten years, tends to lead me, if anywhere, to an opposite conclusion.
The individual who stands out from the herd is the natural target of calumny. I shall never forget the disgraceful episode of the purloined litter, in which the veterinarian Dr. Stookes accused me of — but let us reserve that anomaly for another occasion. To return to Carina: I heard the gossip; I attributed it to as simple a source as I have indicated. But then the evidence began to attain proportions which the most latitudinarian could hardly disregard.
First young Ronny Furbish-Darnley blew out his brains. He had gambling debts, to be sure, and his family chose to lay the stress upon them; but his relations with Carina had been common knowledge. Then Major MacIvers hanged himself with his own cravat (the MacIvers tartan, of course). I need hardly add that a MacIvers had no gambling debts. Even that episode might have been hushed up had not a peer of so exalted a name that I dare not even paraphrase it perished in the flames of his ancestral castle. Even in the charred state in which they were recovered, the bodies of his wife and seven children evinced the clumsy haste with which he had slit their throats.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Far and Away"
Copyright © 1953 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
The Anomaly of the Empty Man,
Secret of the House,
The Other Inauguration,
About the Author,