Partners and Crime: A Roger Knight Mystery

It was a densely wooded plot of land that lay at the intersection of two country roads, not what one would have thought of as remote, but it was not until late October when the leaves had fallen that the old bus became visible from the road. How many motorists caught a glimpse of it in peripheral vision and did not give it a thought would have been difficult to say. Riders of bicycles were more likely to get a good look at it and that is why the two boys scrambled down the bank, crossed the ditch, and picked their way through the thick stand of now denuded trees to the bus. The side windows were curtained and they could not see much when they peered through the windshield, prepared though they were for God knew what. When they forced open the door, they came upon the suitcase.

“Have you opened it?” Philip Knight asked the taller boy, Dennis.

“We couldn’t,” the pudgy one said.

No wonder. It was a bulging calfskin piece of luggage, strapped and locked, its buckles and locks rusted.

“Why did you bring it here?” Roger Knight asked. He lumbered into the room, having been distracted from his computer. The two boys fell back at this vision of a rumpled three hundred-pound giant whose expression was that of a boy like themselves rather than the censorious adult his question might have suggested.

“It looks valuable,” said Pudge.

“It smells,” Dennis said.

The piece of luggage did create a minor olfactory sensation in the Knight living room. Roger was circling it now, sniffing, squinting, nodding.

“RCM,” he said slowly, making out the initials impressed into the calfskin, their gold disappeared. He turned and looked at Philip. “RCM,” he repeated.

“What’s it mean?” Pudge asked, but when Phil spoke he sounded like someone testing a microphone.

“Ronald Charles Murphy?”

“You know him?” Dennis asked, disappointed.

Phil nodded.

“Who is he?”

Murphy had keen the partner of a man who came seeking Philip’s help when he failed to interest the prosecutor in his partner’s alleged peculation. Roger had advised Phil not to take the case even though it was local and would not have required one of their periodic transcontinental migrations.

“It has the look of a domestic quarrel,” Roger said.

Philip did not take divorce cases and Roger was touching on one of his reasons. A client is not grateful to the lawyer who must malign a spouse in order to dissolve a union, however much he or she may urge him on. Phil had thought Roger’s fear fanciful in the case of Murphy and Schwartz. They were investment counselors with a small but affluent clientele, complementing one another perfectly. Murphy had the affability of a salesman and Schwartz had the gravitas of a banker. Neither man had done as well alone before the formation of the partnership. Yet each thought the other a drag on his future. Schwartz accused Murphy of diverting assets, squirreling away stock certificates and bonds.

“What did the police say?”

“They wanted to examine the books first.”

“Well?”

Schwartz was indignant. “‘Ours is a confidential business. I can’t have people nosing around in our records.'”

“You want the prosecutor just to take your word that Murphy is a thief?”

“Murphy got to him first. That was the trouble.” “Murphy complained of you to the prosecutor?” “He’s crazy.”

Phil soon realized that he had been crazy to take Schwartz as a client. With Roger’s help he managed their own portfolio, and he had thought he might pick up some valuable knowledge in the course of working for Schwartz. A week after Schwartz had first come to him, he called Phil.

“Come get me out of here,” Schwartz said without prelude.

“Where are you?”

“In jail.”

“What for?”

“I shot Murphy.”

The wound was not fatal, but an over-bandaged Murphy was featured on local television. He was said to have survived an assassination plot. The prosecutor brought a charge of attempted murder against Murphy.

“I should have practiced,” Schwartz said.

“Thank God you didn’t kill him.”

“Alive, he’ll be free while I am in jail.”

“You won’t be in that long.”

“He could clean me out in a week. He’s already confiscated a third of our assets.”

Meanwhile, from his bed of pain, Murphy was telling the sympathetic media that the partner who had shot him had been looting their firm, which had been the cause of the quarrel. Could Murphy prove it? Prove it? Of course he would prove it. He was hiring an independent auditor and wanted the prosecutor to monitor the procedure.

“They should lock him up and throw away the key,” Murphy roared.

Schwartz was tried and convicted, but his sentence made it all but certain that he would be paroled after serving a year. No sooner was he in his cell than the audit Murphy had ordered was publicized. There was no doubt that assets were missing from the firm. What was lacking, however, was any proof that Schwartz rather than Murphy was responsible. Dahlheimer, Murphy and Schwartz’s accountant, a narrow-faced man with a surprised expression, just looked at the reporter who asked him which partner he thought was guilty. The auditor likewise refused to be drawn into that guessing game. Roland the prosecutor said the matter was under review.

A year had passed, the leaves had fallen, and the valise was discovered by the two boys. At the state prison, Schwartz, who had been a model prisoner, was meeting with the parole board. They decided that he was ready to rejoin society. And the Knight brothers were in possession of a calfskin valise bearing the initials RCM. Having rewarded the boys and gained their promise of silence, at least for now, Philip and Roger went to work on the valise. Treating the locks and buckles with oil did not make them tractable. Philip had recourse to an ice pick and some garden shears and the valise fell open like a much-read book. As it did so, certificates, bonds, CDs, and cash money issued from it as from a cornucopia. Clearly they were looking at the missing assets from Murphy & Schwartz.

“I’ll call the prosecutor,” Phil said.

“Why?”

“This is stolen property.”

“There is no way to tell that. Can a person steal from himself?”

“A partner can steal from a partnership.”

“But which partner?”

“Whose initials are on the valise?”

“What does that prove?”

“That the valise belongs to Murphy.”

“You think he put all these things into a valise and then put it in an abandoned bus where anyone might find it?”

“The chances were one in a thousand those kids would look into that bus.”

“If you had stolen this much, would you take that kind of chance?”

“If you’re asking me whether people who commit crimes do stupid things, the answer is yes.”

“In that case, Schwartz should soon show up at that abandoned bus to claim his ill-gotten gains.”

Phil seized on the idea. Of course. A thief who had stashed away his loot would be back for it. Think of Treasure Island. He talked with Roland the prosecutor and he liked the idea too. They would stake out the bus. They would install cameras to record the scene. They would catch the criminal in the act of reclaiming his stolen goods. Roger, having given birth to the idea, lost interest in it, and was preoccupied when Phil reported on the trap that Roland was setting.

“Have you told Murphy?”

“No! I want this to be a surprise.”

Whether the intramural thief was Murphy or Schwartz would thus be settled by which of them went to the bus to claim the calfskin valise.

“It’ll be Schwartz,” Phil predicted.

“Why?”

“If it were Murphy, he wouldn’t have waited.”

“He could have gone to the bus and found the valise was missing.”

Phil discounted this. The boys had been the first on the scene for months, as an inspection of the area around the bus proved. Theirs were the only signs of human visitors. Now snow had begun to fall and it was an easy matter to see that no one had since visited the bus.

“And I don’t think Schwartz will wait long. All that time in prison he had to wonder whether the valise was safe.”

The cameras at the scene conveyed it to monitors in the Knights’ house, which was not too far distant. It was there that Phil and Roland took up their vigil.

“I’ll keep in touch,” Roger said, slipping into a hooded jacket.

“Where are you going?”

“Into town.”

“You’re going to drive yourself?” Phil was clearly alarmed. “I’ve got a license.”

“Of course you’ve got a license.” Phil paused, studying his brother. “Roger, this is your showdown as much as anyone’s. Stay here with us.”

“I won’t be long.”

“Where can I reach you?”

“The phone in the van.”

“You’re going to be in the van all the time?”

Roger nodded and stepped into the wintry afternoon. Phil watched his brother go out to the garage, picking his way down the path. His hand went to the door, as if he would go after him, but he stayed inside.

“What’s the matter?” Roland said. He was seated in comfort before the bank of monitors, a beer in hand, a platter of man-sized sandwiches in front of him. Roger had made the snack before he left, and Phil looked at the sandwiches ruefully.

“He must be mad.”

“Angry or nuts?”

“Hey.”

“I meant, why miss out on the grand finale?”

Roger was not given to moods, but Phil couldn’t help thinking that the presence of Roland had robbed Roger of the sense that he and Phil were together on this matter. He began to resent Roland a bit himself. But that was silly. Once the monitors showed what they were waiting for, the prosecutor could put the police in action with a phone call.

An hour and a half later the sandwiches were gone, Roland was on his third beer, and their watch on the monitors was less vigilant. Phil had called the van several times but gotten no answer.

“Look!” Roland cried suddenly in a stage whisper.

There was action on two monitors and at first Phil thought it was two shots of the same man, but then he saw they were different.

“Schwartz,” Roland said.

“Murphy,” Phil said.

The two men came gingerly through the snow, concentrating on their footing, unaware of one another. A camera mounted high in a tree now gave an aerial view. Murphy and Schwartz were vectoring toward the bus, coming from opposite directions, shielded from one another by the intervening vehicle. Roland and Phil sat forward. This was far more drama than they had counted on. And confusing. Why were both men creeping up on the vehicle in which the calfskin valise of stolen stocks and bonds had been hidden?

Murphy had arrived at the entry door to the bus, but before he could push it open, Schwartz came around the front of the bus. Murphy was visibly startled by the appearance of his partner and on Schwartz’s face appeared a look of triumph. The two men rushed at one another, slipping and sliding in the snow, and then they were grappling. By the time Roland was putting through his call to the patrol cars that were waiting to descend on the scene, the partners where wrestling in the snow.

Half an hour later, the two partners were in the Knights’ living room, where a hefty officer made sure they did not resume their fight. Since there was no cause for an arrest, it had seemed best to take them where they could see the monitors and the vigil that had been kept, waiting for them to make a move.

“I got a call telling me to look in that bus.”

“Ha. I got the call. I can’t believe I didn’t recognize your voice.” Murphy sneered at Schwartz and was answered in kind.

“You both got calls?”

“I got a call,” the partners said in unison.

“From who?”

“Him,” they both chorused.

And so it went on for some minutes, each accusing the other. They were still at it when Roger returned. He had brought Dahlheimer with him and the accountant seemed reluctant to witness the plight in which his employers had fallen.

“What did you expect to find in the bus?” Roger asked the partners.

“What he stole,” was their single answer.

“Just lying in the bus. In a sack? In a box? What?” Schwartz had no answer and neither did Murphy. “They’re both innocent,” Roger said firmly.

Roland said that they couldn’t be. There were the missing stocks and bonds.

“Indeed there are. And the one who called knew that they were in the bus.”

“He knew all right,” Murphy said, pointing at Schwartz who was pointing at him.

“Stop him, would you, Phil?”

Dahlheimer had started for the door and he broke into a run when Roger spoke. But Phil was too fast for the accountant. Murphy and Schwartz watched all this in amazement.

“Dahlheimer is the embezzler,” Roger said. “By causing dissension among the partners he covered his own trail.”

“That’s a lie,” the accountant squealed.

“It was you on the phone,” Murphy said. Schwartz was nodding.

“I should have recognized him.”

“He tried to disguise his voice.”

The two partners looked at one another. More than a year of mutual recrimination dissipated as they moved toward one another, arms spread, and then they were embracing, patting one another on the back, uttering the inarticulate monosyllables with which the male expresses what cannot he said.

What put you onto DahIheimer?” Phil asked later. They were at table, savoring huge helpings of Roger’s goulash.

“Elimination. If both partners were telling the truth, there had to be someone else. And there was. They were so busy accusing one another they overlooked the one person who could have stolen from them both.”

“Murphy seemed as happy to get back his valise as what was in it.”

“Sentiment always trumps money,” Roger observed.

Phil thought about that. It was a nice thought, though he doubted it was always true. Isn’t greed a sentiment? No need to discuss it now, however, not with a mountain of goulash before him.

By

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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