Plum Lines: A Roger Knight Mystery

Laila Davenport was given the news of her husband’s murder when she emerged from the club where she had been playing bridge for the past three hours. Her reaction, given this concentrated use of the mind over an extended period of time, was delayed, but then she grasped what was being told her, let out a cry, and staggered into the arms of her playing partner, Freddy McNaughton.

The newly begotten widow was taken to her car, where she huddled sobbing in the back seat, from time to time looking beyond the gathering gawkers at Freddy, who was being given such details of the murder as were then known.

Guido Davenport’s car had been parked in its special place in the garage from which he could pass directly into the building where his offices were. He had arrived at his office at 9:30, he had left again shortly before noon, off for a luncheon engagement with a client, Manley Biran. The explosion that shredded Davenport’s Mercedes had taken out two other luxury cars, caused damage to a dozen others, and had rained debris on terrified pedestrians below for some minutes. In the smoldering ruins of the car had been found Davenport’s briefcase and his shockproof watch. His own remains would be more difficult to identify.

Freddy conveyed all this to Laila when he joined her in the car and drove her to her apartment. She leaned on his arm as they entered the building, but when the doors of the elevator closed on them, Laila and Freddy threw themselves into one another’s arms. They emerged flushed and panting on the seventh floor, where Freddy hummed with impatience as Laila unlocked the door. Inside the apartment, the phone was ringing insistently.

“Ignore it,” Freddy urged.

But it would have taken a stronger character than Laila’s to resist the ringing of a telephone. She picked it up.

“Laila? This is Guido. An incredible thing has happened.”

The phone slipped from Laila’s fingers as she slipped to the floor. Freddy, hearing the voice of Guido on the phone, managed not to faint. He let himself out of the apartment and took the stairs to street level. Behind the wheel of his car, he hesitated before turning the ignition key, and when he did his eyes were squeezed shut. But a twist of the key had no more surprising effect than starting the motor and he drove off, relieved if confused.

When he was contacted by Guido Davenport, Philip Knight was inclined to accept the task of finding out what exactly had happened to the supposedly dead man who wished to employ him. Davenport had decided to retain his deceased status until he learned who it was who had wished him out of this world. He had, he hinted, some ideas as to who it might be. With his brother Roger ensconced in his swivel chair in the body of the van, able to while away the miles on his computer, Philip drove to Indianapolis, signed them into a hotel and telephoned Guido Davenport at the number he had been given.

“I’ll be there in minutes.”

“You’re in the hotel?”

“It’s as good a hideaway as any.”

The bearded man with hair growing over his collar, wearing a sweat shirt and jeans, was not Philip’s image of the prosperous criminal lawyer he and Roger had researched before starting out from their home in Rye.

“Only my wife knows I was not in that car,” Davenport said, with a grim smile. “Whoever tried to get me could try again.”

“A disgruntled client?”

“Or a gruntled rival. Those I represent are ruthless.”

“Wodehouse,” Roger said delightedly, recognizing the provenance of gruntled.

“I am an addict.”

“Wouldn’t it be wiser to put all this in the hands of the police?” Philip asked impatiently.

Davenport’s expression was bleak. “I have stopped trusting anyone since this happened.”

“Tell us what happened,” Roger said. “On the day you were killed.”

Davenport had arrived at his office at midmorning, having parked his car where he always did. It was unattended until almost three hours later when he left for lunch.

“Did you keep your luncheon appointment?”

“Eventually, yes.”

When he entered the passageway leading to the garage, someone had hurried up beside him and snatched his briefcase. He was thrown to the ground and then the lights went out.

“I came to with my head pounding. I glanced at my watch but it wasn’t there. Disoriented, I went back to my office.”

“Whom did you see?”

“My secretary had gone to lunch. The office was empty.”

“So you went off to lunch with Manley Biran.”

Davenport looked from Roger to Phil. “I think you know I didn’t.”

“What we know is that Biran denied having a luncheon engagement with you.”

Davenport rubbed his beard and looked around the room. “My suite is very much like this one. How like a cell it has become.” He inhaled. “I am ashamed of what I must now tell you. Laila has been so wonderful through all this. I had an engagement with another woman: Prossy Hirsh, the wife of a man serving a sentence in Michigan City.”

“A client?”

Guido nodded. “He thinks I let him down. He is not entirely wrong. The sting of defeat was made bearable by the relationship I had begun to establish with Prossy.” He looked at Roger. “She likes Wodehouse. So few women do.”

“That’s no excuse.” But Roger seemed to have hesitated.

“And you think the explosion was Hirsh’s revenge?” Philip was intent to keep them on track.

“Of course I do.”

“But who started your car?” “Whoever mugged me in the passageway to the garage.”

The explanation posed a problem, unless it was an appeal to pure accident. Whoever had arranged for Davenport’s car to explode when the engine was started would hardly have hopped into the driver’s seat and turned the key.

Roger said, “Did the mugger take your keys?”

For answer, Davenport fished forth from his pocket a jangling bouquet of steel. The three men pondered the significance of that, but it was Roger who suggested that the explosive had been detonated by a remote device, not the key, operated by someone who could see a man get into the car.

“The main thing is they think they accomplished their goal.”

“Only Laila and I know they failed.”

“You haven’t been in touch with Prossy?”

Davenport raised a hand, his fingers twisted in the Scout salute. “No.”

“I want to talk to Laila.”

“I’ll have her come here.”

But Roger suggested it might be better if they called on her. “And several others. How far is Michigan City?”

“What’s the point of talking to Hirsh? He has a perfect alibi.”

“Who else would have a motive?”

Davenport looked sad as a roll of names scrolled past his mind’s eye. “The aim of the criminal attorney is not to make friends. He ends up making enemies on both sides of the law. Of course it pays well.”

“It was Gunter, you can be sure of it. He is a low, vindictive man.” Prossy Hirsch said this of her husband with some satisfaction, but then what woman would be unmoved by the fact that one man had tried to kill another because of her? “He is insanely jealous.”

“Why insane if he has reason?”

“Do you think he was faithful to me?”

“You make him sound like a man whose legs you have to count to make certain he isn’t a goat.”

Prossy Hirsh was confused. “Oh, maybe he’s faithful now, while he’s in prison. But what am I supposed to do. Wither on the vine?”

“I had an aunt who collected dry seaweed. I sometimes thought she lived entirely for pleasure.”

Prossy dismissed this. “Gunther in prison and Guido blown to kingdom come. Honestly.”

“If your husband had arranged to do away with Guido, how would he go about it?”

“Haven’t you read the papers?”

“I meant who would his cohorts be?”

“Oh, he never told me anything about his work.”

“Who looks after his nightclub?” The Waikiki had been mentioned in newspaper accounts as the place where Davenport was supposed to lunch.

“Manley Biran.” She sighed. “I don’t know what I would have done without him.”

Roger left her, doubtful that she ran any risk of withering on the vine, but when he met Manley Biran he was once more baffled by the female psyche. Biran’s face had the look of a fist whose clenched fingers concealed his eyes. Nonetheless Roger felt that he was being inspected carefully by the man who sat behind the desk in the manager’s office of the Waikiki.

“You’re fat.”

“So are you.”

“But I’m tall.”

“Maybe I’ll grow.”

“Sideways. What do you want?”

“I am a private investigator looking into the death of Guido Davenport.”

“You represent the insurance company?”

“If Davenport died as the result of violence he himself had incited we may not be liable.”

This remark would have been difficult to justify in moral theology strictly construed. Roger was taking advantage of Biran’s assumption that he was investigating Davenport’s death for an insurance company. The fact that he and Philip would not be liable no matter how Davenport had died, and the further fact that Davenport was as alive as Manley Biran, did not make his remark less misleading.

“It wasn’t Hirsh. Believe me.”

Oddly enough, perhaps, Roger did believe him. When he got back to the hotel, he found Philip on the phone, speaking with great urgency. Phil pointed at the television which was turned on but muted. Roger punched the remote and listened to the announcement of the death of Mrs. Laila Davenport. He exchanged a look with Philip, who was hanging up the phone.

“He’s not in the hotel. The police have learned that he has been holed up here. Apparently Laila told them that her husband did not die in that explosion.”

Roger nodded. “Where do you think Guido is?”

“He said he was going to keep a rendezvous with his wife.” “I wonder if he did.”

The police did not wonder. They were waiting for Guido when he returned to the hotel. Roger and Philip sat with him during the original interrogation.

“She didn’t show up,” Guido said, when asked if he had met his wife.

“Do you know why?”

Perhaps it is easier to look innocent with a beard. In any case, Roger had difficulty imagining a more innocent expression than that which Guido Davenport turned on his questioners. The police were unimpressed, not least because they felt that Guido had pulled a fast one on them by pretending to be dead for weeks. Their view was that Guido, incensed that Laila had told the police and suspecting that she wanted to enjoy his wealth without being encumbered by him, had killed her.

“I hate it when a client tries to exploit me,” Phil said.

“How so?”

“I think we were meant to be his alibi.”

Philip, in short, shared the police view that Guido had done away with Laila.

“How did she die?” Roger asked.

“A pillow over her face.”

At two the following morning Roger shook his brother awake. Philip took some time focusing his mind.

“I think I know what happened, Phil.”

“Tell me in the morning.”

“I don’t think we should wait.”

“Wait for what?”

“To pay a call on Freddy McNaughton.”

“Who in blazes is Freddy McNaughton?”

“In the phrase of the newspaper account, Laila Davenport’s playing partner.”

There are two kinds of criminal, the brazen and the craven.

Freddy McNaughton was of the latter sort. He could not bring himself to believe that the guilt he felt was invisible to others. When the Knight brothers interrupted his insomniac pacing of his apartment and identified themselves as private detectives, Freddy went to pieces. He could not spill out his story fast enough. The plan to blow up Guido had been no idea of his. He had gone along with Laila with a sense of disbelief that such a thing could actually be done. She assured him that contacts with Guido’s clients enabled her to arrange for the fatal explosion.”

“The man who mugged Guido went up with the car?”

Freddy tried to nod in such a way as to keep it a secret from his head. “He was supposed to drag Guido to the car and drive him away. He didn’t know about the explosion.”

“Laila gave him a key to the car?”

“Yes. As soon as we got back to her place, Guido called.” “You knew he was alive?”

“I heard his voice. Laila fainted. I fled. We talked on the phone, she wouldn’t stop calling, but today was the first time I saw her since that awful day. I kept expecting Guido to come for me. I lived in terror. She said the only solution was to do ourselves what the explosion had failed to do.”

“So you killed her?”

“I held a pillow over her face, to shut her up. She was taunting me, telling me I had to kill Guido.”

Thus it was that the Knight brothers learned what the reader has known from the beginning.

“Freddy McNaughton,” Guido said, shaking his head. “I can’t believe it.”

“Where were you when Freddy was killing your wife?”

Guido looked sheepish. He had been unable to keep away from Prossy Hirsh. His rendezvous had been with her. Roger grew serious.

“There is something I have to tell you. She does not know Wodehouse at all. She did not respond to two of the more famous Wodehousian witticisms. No true fanatic would have failed to recognize them.”

Guido reeled under this blow, but quickly regrouped. There was more to Prossy Hirsh’s attractiveness than her supposed predilection for Wodehouse. He was, in the words of the Master, a man capable of only one idea at a time—if that. The arrest of Prossy as well as Freddy McNaughton brought Guido to his senses. His wife and her lover had tried to kill him and then her paramour killed Laila. It was enough to make a man wonder about the human race. Davenport now wore the wise pensive look of the Oldest Member.

“Go golfing,” Roger suggested. “It will make you forgiving of others.”


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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