Rattling rhythmically at each floor, the old-fashioned elevator moved upward past glass doors decorated with etchings of flowers. It stopped. (...) 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. (...)
"Gentlemen," the Chief Inspector said (...) "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."
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. (...) 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. (...) 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... The cause of death was poisoning by illuminating gas. It was an unfortunate accident."
"Autopsy?" said the Chief Inspector, raising his eyebrows. (...)
"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...(...) 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. (...) 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."(...)
"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. (...) 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." (...)
"Are there any possible hiding places in the laboratory?" the Chief Inspector asked. (...)
"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. (...) "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." (...)
"Are you finished?"
"Yes sir. (...) 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."