Dead Language: A Roger Knight Mystery

tacitus

An hour after arrival in Minneapolis Philip Knight called on his client, but the man who answered the door was clearly a policeman.

“Is Genevieve Magee at home?”

 

“Who are you?”

Though he was on a step below the man, Philip could see the top of his head. “I was going to ask you the same thing.”

“Detective Fleischer.”

“City?”

Fleischer nodded. “What’s your business?”

“I’m a private investigator.”

“Come to see Genevieve Magee?”

“That’s right.”

“She’s dead.”

Roger had taken the call three days earlier and when he found that the prospective client was a classicist, he spoke to her for forty-five minutes about Tacitus before getting to the point of her call. Of course theirs was an 800 number, so this was not a hardship to Miss Magee, who felt her life was threatened and was inquiring about receiving protection from Knight Investigations.

“I particularly like the connotations of Knight.”

“Who would threaten you?”

“I am an heiress.”

“It must be a considerable sum.”

“Not quite $40 million I’m told.”

The combination of Tacitus and that amount of money was irresistible and the following morning Philip and Roger rolled down their driveway in their van and started for Minneapolis.

“I should have flown,” Philip lamented when he found his client was dead.

“You still would have been too late.”

 

Genevieve had called Monday afternoon at five, which was four o’clock in Minneapolis. The estimated time of death was five o’clock local time. It had been a quiet death. The strong sedative in her tea had put her to sleep and then a pillow had been held over her nose and mouth until life departed her body. She was found slumped in her wheel chair, the pillow on the floor beside her, the overturned cup of tea on the little reading desk attached to her chair. Roger studied the black and white photographs that Fleischer provided.

“The picture seems almost posed.”

“She lived with her aunt, Mrs. Owens, the one who intended to bequeath her the money.”

Alma Owens did not have the look of a wealthy woman. She wore slacks, ankle-high shoes, and an unbuttoned lumberjack shirt over a T-shirt that bore the legend BULL. Roger asked if she supported only one member of the Chicago NBA team. After a delay, she laughed.

“You should see what’s on the back.”

“Tell us what happened.”

“Is it true that my niece hired you to come protect her?”

“She said she was in danger.”

“Well, I want to hire you to find out who did this.”

“We intend to do that in any case,” Philip said. “As a matter of honor. But we’ll be glad to have you for a client. Have you any idea who could have done this?”

Alma Owens mixed mild profanity with a surprisingly extensive vocabulary. She was, it soon emerged, the Alma Owens whose study of the use of Latin in the American colonies and by the founders of the nation was a favorite of Roger’s. She had taught her niece Latin and it had been a pleasure of what she refused to call her declining years (“nor conjugating either,” she added, rolling an eye at Philip) to talk about the classics with Genevieve.

“I found her fascinating on Tacitus.”

“He was a surprising favorite of hers.”

“Why surprising?”

“Have you read him?”

“Of course.”

She shrugged. “De gustibus non disputandum est.”

 

There was a third person who lived in the main house, a diminutive woman who cooked and kept the place clean and had an apartment on the third floor. There was another apartment over the massive garage, originally meant as servants’ quarters, and in it lived Sylvia Roche and her husband, Wayne.

“Genevieve’s half-sister. And no, the other half isn’t a brother.” Alma dug Phil in the ribs, apparently convinced he was a roué who regarded the difference in their ages as a mere bagatelle and might shortly declare his intentions.

“What does Wayne do?”

“He works for me, more or less. He’s on the payroll anyway. I no longer like to drive and he’s a great help to me in that respect.”

“And Sylvia?”

Alma Owens sighed. “A saint. Absolutely devoted to Genevieve. And self-effacing. I have begged her to move into the house. The garage apartment does not heat well in winter and in summer you have to have window air-conditioners going day and night. But she insists it is more than good enough for her and Wayne.”

“Is she also your heir?”

Alma pulled her chair closer and whispered. “She doesn’t know that. I had decided that everything will be divided between them, with the proviso that Sylvia would take care of Genevieve as long as… ” She stopped, as if aware for the first time that the grim terminus implied had already been reached.

 

“So Sylvia would have no motive?”

“For what?”

“To kill Genevieve.”

Alma shook her head slowly. “If you had ever seen the two of them together you would never ask such a question.”

That seemed to leave only Mrs. Hopkins, the cook, and Wayne Roche. Roger said he would speak with Roche. A car had been backed out of the garage and parked on the apron, where Roche was engaged in eliciting a high polish from its surface. Roger told him who he was.

“Your aunt has hired us to find out what happened to Genevieve.”

Roche stared at Roger and suddenly burst into tears. It was a sight to behold: that stocky man whose crew cut made him seem both more youthful and more athletic, crying like a child.

“I’m trying to keep busy, to keep my mind off it. She was a wonderful woman.”

“Where’s Mrs. Roche?”

“I’d rather you didn’t disturb her yet,” Roche said and a sob escaped him. “She has taken a sleeping pill.”

“What do you do here exactly?”

“Mainly I’m just on call. And of course they need a man around, Aunt Alma and Gen.” He began to rub vigorously on the hood of the car.

“Who could have done this to her?”

Roche observed a long significant silence. “It had to be someone in the house.”

“Surely not Alma.”

“Good Lord, no.”

“When do you suppose your wife will awake?”

“I want her to sleep right on through until morning.”

 

Back in the house, Roger settled into a leather sofa in the library, his lap full of books he had taken from the shelves. His own collection of Latin poets and historians had been purchased haphazardly over the years. It was not until he arrived at Princeton that he studied either Latin or Greek. Prior to that his size and manner had led teachers to think of him as all but retarded. He had been kept two years in the sixth grade but shortly thereafter when Philip, knowing something of his brother’s gifts, protested and Roger was adequately tested, everything changed. Roger entered Princeton a year later. He was nineteen when he took his doctorate in philosophy but the classic languages had remained an abiding love, useful for reading Cicero and Plato and Aristotle, but continuing to seem more a medium for poetry and history than philosophy. Tacitus’s De Germania had figured in his dissertation, tangentially, and he had looked forward to chatting about that work with Genevieve. It was a poor second best to have access to her books, and to those of Alma Owens.

“Most of these works are on the Web now,” he said to Alma.

She stared at him.

“The Internet.”

“I haven’t the least idea what you are talking about.”

He began to explain it to her, but was interrupted by the arrival of Philip, who immediately saw that Roger was once again assuming that anyone who shared one of his enthusiasms must share them all.

“How long has Mrs. Hopkins worked for you?”

“I consider her one of the family, not an employee.”

“Is she in your will too?”

Alma turned to Roger. “You’re a nosy one, aren’t you?”

“I’m an investigator.”

She conceded the point. Yes, Mrs. Hopkins was in the will.

“So it isn’t quite accurate to say that you are dividing your estate between Genevieve and Sylvia.”

“Shhhh,” Alma said. “Sylvia will get it all now, not just half, though she didn’t know that.”

“She gets all that Mrs. Hopkins doesn’t get?”

“Oh, that’s not very much at all.”

By this she meant five hundred thousand dollars.

“Where did you get all your money?”

“You mustn’t laugh.”

Roger and Philip promised not to laugh.

“Powerball.”

Roger looked blankly at Philip.

“The lottery,” she explained. The prize had risen to over $100 million and Alma, a classics professor of modest means, had bought a dollar ticket. And won. “I have never been able to take money seriously since.”

 

This house she had bought and the enlargement of her library were the most obvious results of her good fortune. She had retired from teaching reluctantly, but it was no longer possible to treat and be treated by her colleagues as before. She had once been an esteemed professor, but for all that like the rest of mortals; now she was a woman of undreamt of wealth.

“People think it confers omnipotence. It does not. I am told that I can go wherever I wish, and that is true. But do it half a dozen times and it palls. One longs for simplicity. I never fly first class.”

“I never fly at all,” Roger said.

“I am not surprised. On the other hand, if they can lift those massive machines into thin air I shouldn’t think you would pose an insuperable problem.”

“It’s the seats.”

“Ah. Well, there are lots of sofas in this house.”

Those in the library were particularly comfortable. Alma told them that one unequivocal benefit of her windfall was that her cousin’s children had contacted her.

 

“Genevieve and Sylvia?”

“I remembered mention of a cousin in Omaha, or at least relatives of some kind. But I was left orphaned, if losing both one’s parents at thirty-two can be said to make one an orphan, and so had no one I could ask about relatives, distant or close.”

“How did you locate them?”

“Oh, they located me.”

Mrs. Hopkins, on the other hand, antedated the lucky lottery ticket. “She has known me poor as well as rich.”

“How did you know the girls were related to you?”

“A marvelous thing. I’d had my genealogy traced scarcely a month before Sylvia telephoned from Omaha. I found her name and urged her to come as soon as possible. They were the real prize I won.”

She handed Roger the results of the genealogical search and he settled down with it. Phil began to talk of what he had learned from Mrs. Hopkins. Some minutes later, Roger looked pensively at Alma.

“I’m surprised someone hasn’t tried to kill you.”

“Me!”

“Perhaps you don’t take money seriously any more, but most people do. Particularly those who stand to inherit a lot of it.”

“Well, that was no reason to kill poor Genevieve. I wonder how long she would have lived, with her handicap and all.”

“Was she born handicapped?”

“Good heavens no. She was agile as a colt when she first arrived. There was a freak accident. Genevieve had just come in the driveway on her bicycle as the car was being backed out of the garage. The car barely touched her, it seemed, but she was never to walk again.”

“Who was her doctor?”

“Sylvia would know. People think I’m tough but I am simply no good at things like that, other people’s pain.”

“Who was driving the car?”

“Mrs. Hopkins.”

When they were alone, Philip asked Roger what he made of it all.

“I’d like to know how the coroner described Genevieve’s physical condition.”

“You think the useless legs were a pretense?”

“I don’t think anything of the kind. What basis would I have?”

“I’ll ask Fleischer.”

“Good.”

Meanwhile Roger opened his portable computer and got on the Internet, communicating with his far-flung circle of electronic friends. He was especially eager to talk with those who were knowledgeable in genealogies.

 

“Mrs. Hopkins was right,” Philip said some hours later.

“How so?”

“She doubted Genevieve was crippled at all. She swore the car didn’t really hit her. Her bike tipped over and she sprawled on the grass but that was it. The coroner said he hadn’t noticed anything wrong with her legs.”

“Wasn’t he curious about the wheelchair?”

“Roche said something that made him think it belonged to Alma.”

“I don’t think they are even related to Alma, Phil. From what I’ve been able to learn, this is a bogus genealogy, probably prepared to their specifications. Guess who used to make a living preparing flattering genealogies?”

“One of the girls?”

“Roche.”

Phil fell silent. “I like her but I can’t be guided by that.”

“Alma?”

“Mrs. Hopkins. She told me she daydreamed about getting that trio out of here. But she didn’t say anything because Alma was so happy to have relatives.”

“I’d like to talk to her.”

Roger was still in the study when there was the sound of voices in the next room, Phil’s and a woman’s. And then the door opened and Phil showed in Mrs. Hopkins.

“I’ll leave you two alone,” Phil said.

 

“What’s that all about?” she asked, frowning at the closing door.

“We work as a team. We’re brothers, you know.”

“I wouldn’t if you hadn’t told me. It’s not healthy carrying all that weight.” Roger peered at her. There was no mistaking the voice.

Roger told her of the embarrassment he had felt when Roche burst into tears. “Feminis lamentare honestum est,” he began.

“No, no, no. Feminis lugere honestum est, viris meminisse. It is right for women to mourn and for men to remember. You’re not very good in the remembering department.”

“I remember your voice very well, Mrs. Hopkins. It was you who called and asked us to come here.”

“Why on earth would you say that?”

“Because of our interesting chat about Tacitus’s Germania. Because when I cited what is arguably the only well-turned phrase in the work, you corrected me as you did just then.”

She seemed relieved to have been discovered. She sat and was eager to tell him the circumstances of her call. She had just found Genevieve dead in the wheelchair.

“I knew it was the other two. I also knew if I said so Alma wouldn’t believe me. She wanted those scoundrels to be her relatives. I thought if you and your brother came and looked into matters . . .”

The staged accident when Genevieve pretended to have been struck by Mrs. Hopkins’s car and borrowing the wheelchair Alma had used after a skiing accident was meant to turn Alma Owens against her old friend, Mrs. Hopkins.

“That didn’t work. I think they hoped I would be suspected of Genevieve’s death.”

Within minutes, Roger had turned the conversation back to Tacitus. They were on the Agricola when Phil came in with Detective Fleischer. The coroner had found nothing wrong with Genevieve’s legs and a wire from Omaha had been grounds enough to arrest the Roches. Alma was brought in and told the whole story. She was dazed and disappointed. But eventually sheepish. She had been blinded by a desire for blood relatives.

“Thank God for Mrs. Hopkins,” Roger said. “You can discuss the classics with her.”

That Mrs. Hopkins was as knowledgeable as she was came as a surprise to Alma Owens. Apparently Hopkins had been studying Latin for years, having seen what a consolation the classics were to Alma after her bewildering good luck in the lottery.

“Money,” Alma said disdainfully. “It is the radix malorum.”

Mrs. Hopkins and Roger nodded in agreement. Phil and Fleischer shrugged.

 

This mystery was originally published in the May 1997 issue of Crisis Magazine.

Ralph McInerny

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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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