Dust Abhors a Vacuum: A Roger Knight Mystery

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Aunt Lucerne was the only relative Philip and Roger Knight had, so it was perhaps fitting that she should be absolute. Once in the dimly remembered past she may have entertained doubts, but this was long before her nephews came to know her. In their experience, she had always been omniscient, riddled with certainty and usually wrong. She was at her most Olympian on this visit.

She sat enthroned in a straight and unforgiving chair, to the left of the fireplace in which no fire blazed, this having been forbidden by Aunt Lucerne as unnecessary in April.

 

“The temperature is 33,” Philip said.

“Fahrenheit,” Roger added. But it was folly to think that Aunt Lucerne’s outlook could be influenced by mere facts. Her rounded eye had turned on Roger and her brows lifted.

“You’re fat.”

“Yes, I am,” Roger said cheerfully. “I weigh well over three hundred pounds.”

“Good Lord.”

“Amen.”

“No one in our family is fat,” she said, sitting even straighter. To say that Aunt Lucerne was slight of build would have been to sin on the side of charity. To be sure, she had with age begun to shrink and melt, in the usual fashion, but some icebergs make it much farther into southern waters than others. What she meant, Roger decided, was that she did not feel fat.

Her attention returned to the mission that had brought her half a thousand miles to the home of her nephews in Rye, New York. She lifted the shopping bag she had been holding since sailing in unannounced fifteen minutes before. Her hands were gloved, she still wore her coat, she was the picture of a woman in need of a fire, (and some hot chocolate as well), but she waived away the suggestion.

“The contents of this bag are an insult.”

The two brothers waited. She seemed to expect more of a response.

“You are Philip?”

“I am.”

“I am told that you are intelligent.”

“Word gets out.”

“I am also told that you are a detective.”

“Yes.”

“Good at puzzles, able to understand odd things?”

“Sometimes.”

That established, she turned once more to Roger. “And you are a Catholic.”

“That’s right.”

That an overweight Catholic should be related to her by blood was clearly a trial for Lucerne. But the question was relevant. She briskly laid out for them the reason for her visit.

The shopping bag contained the contents of a safe deposit box that had been held in the name of her estranged husband. Their marriage had received its final blow when he converted to Catholicism.

“He said he had ‘poped.’ I did not know the word. This seemed to give him pleasure. Eventually I caught his meaning. It was the last straw.”

“You parted?”

She glared at Roger. “He left.” Her tone conjured an image of herself in the doorway, pointing toward the horizon while her disgraced husband skulked off into the sunset. “Since you too have poped,” she said, wincing, “I thought that perhaps you might discern some twisted significance in what he has done. Your superstitions plus your brother’s brains may make some sense of this.” She rattled the shopping bag.

News of her husband’s death had reached her only after the fact, not that she meant to suggest that she would have hastened to be at his bedside. “There are some things only God can forgive.”

Silence fell. Neither brother was inclined to inquire into the precise nature of their uncle’s perfidy. Neither had either of them met the man. Since separating from him, Lucerne herself had not seen or talked with her husband, Fergus. When she heard that he had left instructions that a key to a safe deposit box be given to her, Lucerne had felt faint stirrings of the milk of human kindness.

“One reads of deathbed repentance. I imagined this was a case of it. The key arrived. The box was in a bank of the city in which I live. Minneapolis,” she added, peering at Philip.

“Minneapolis,” he repeated.

“Actually, Edina. A suburb.”

“So you went to the bank?”

She ignored Roger. She was not to be hurried through her narrative. She was clearly intent on telling them in such a way that it would be unnecessary to go over painful matters again and again.

Admitted to the vault and eventually left alone with the box that had been removed from its place and put on a table where she might inspect it, she had felt the significance of the moment. A faint tremor passed through her body. Less loathsome memories of her spouse assailed her. Almost, she remembered having felt some smidgen of affection when she consented to Fergus Tracy’s pleas and agreed to become his wife. The corners of her mouth dimpled with the promise of a smile and then she lifted the cover of the box.

“It was one final insult from beyond the grave,” she cried, the ignominy of that moment returning in full force.

“What did you find?” Roger asked.

“It is all here. As soon as I recovered, I scooped the contents of the box into this shopping bag lest anyone see what Fergus had dared do to me.”

“And you have brought everything to us?” Philip asked. His eye was on the shopping bag and Roger recognized a more than professional curiosity in his brother’s eye. From time to time they spoke of Aunt Lucerne but always in a negative vein. After all, she had responded to a Christmas card with a note that they need never again bother to visit such sentimentality on her. Roger continued to send her a card nonetheless. She wrote to tell him that she had little money and that in any case it was already destined to go elsewhere. Reliving their aunt’s humiliation in the bank vault when she opened the safe deposit box warmed Philip almost as much as a good fire in the hearth might have.

“Take it,” she cried, holding the bag at arm’s length.

Philip went for it. Roger was on his feet and at his brother’s side when he pulled aside the bag’s handles to look inside.

“A cheesehead?” Roger asked.

“And a piggy bank,” Philip noted.

“It is empty,” Lucerne said with a disdainful and unladylike snort.

Philip removed what Roger had called a cheesehead, a triangular piece of yellow plastic made to look like cheese and worn as hats by fans of the Green Bay Packers. He turned it over, shook it, smelled it, looked at Roger, and surrendered it to him. Roger put it on the table. There seemed nothing distinctive about the unusual headware: There were doubtless thousands and thousands identical to it.

The piggy bank was a promotion item from a Green Bay bank, a rotund ceramic porker wearing a beatific smile and a slot on its back. On one side was lettered “MacLivid.” On the other, a rectangular recess was empty save for a piece of masking tape on which was written, “Your name.”

“Who is MacLivid?” Philip asked.

“If I knew that I would not be here.”

“Have you called this bank?”

She inhaled through her nostrils in a protracted way, seeming to inflate with the activity, her eyes closed as if in pain. “I must have an intermediary. You must see how foolish I would look making such inquiries about an empty piggy bank.”

“But there has to be some reason for passing these things on to you.”

“Of course there is. He imagined me calling that bank and asking foolish questions, doubtless causing a flood of gossip about the grasping widow. You must do it for me.”

“So you are convinced that these things mean something?”

“I am convinced of nothing of the sort. More than likely it is a practical joke, meant to mock me. I will not give Fergus that satisfaction, not even posthumously.”

“How long can you stay, Aunt?”

“How long will it take?”

“That is difficult to say.”

“But you think you can find out what it means?”

“I can try,” Philip replied and there was a barely suppressed chuckle in his tone. Roger feared that his brother would take culpable pleasure in prolonging their Aunt Lucerne’s suspense.

 

“She is torn between two possibilities,” Philip said later when Aunt Lucerne had consented to stay with them and had gone up to the guest room.

“Like Buridan’s ass,” Roger murmured.

“Don’t be unkind.”

Roger tried to explain the allusion, but Philip was turning over the cheesehead and inspecting the piggy bank, a grin on his face.

“I wish we had known Fergus better, Roger.”

“We didn’t know him at all.”

Philip regarded the point as pedantic. “MacLivid,” he said, reading the side of the pig.

“Any idea what it means?”

“Probably nothing. The old girl may be right. It’s just his way of getting back at her.”

Roger considered the likelihood of such posthumous vindictiveness and ranked it slight. Aunt Lucerne had asked Philip if he was good at solving puzzles and grasping the point of obscure things. She must have known her husband as well as anyone and found it difficult to accept the theory that this was merely a practical joke.

Aunt Lucerne was without comment on the excellent dinner Philip had prepared and afterward remarked that television gave her a headache. She sat down with a book written to help its readers achieve a higher estimate of themselves, a singular waste of time in her case. Roger repaired to his computer and soon was happily in communication with his peers throughout the world. A child prodigy, Roger had received a doctorate from Princeton at the age of 17. It was at Princeton that he had converted to Catholicism. A teaching career failed to open up for him: He was eccentric, putting on more weight daily, and had a childlike innocence that caused people to doubt that he was as brilliant as his dossier suggested. An unemployable genius. He settled down with Philip who, after several muggings, decided he would conduct his private investigation business from the redoubt of Rye, advertising an 800 number in the yellow pages of directories about the country, and taking only jobs that promised diversion as well as money. Roger applied for and received a private investigator’s license and they had become partners of a sort. Roger was left with considerable leisure to read and to carry on exchanges over the Internet with a far-flung circle of electronic pals.

Philip went to Green Bay and made inquiries at the bank that had given out the piggy banks some ten years before. The director fondled the pig as if a prodigal had come home. MacLivid? He knew no one of that name. What did he make of the lettering on the piggy bank’s side? He was a stolid man, in Philip’s description, a man whose imagination was not given much exercise. With reluctance he let Philip inspect the records of holders of safe deposit boxes. There was none in the name of Fergus Tracy and none in the name of MacLivid.

“Did you try the Mc’s as well as the Mac’s?” Roger asked on the phone.

“Of course.”

Philip returned unsuccessful from his trip to Wisconsin. Aunt Lucerne had trouble controlling her contempt.

“And you call yourself a detective?”

“I think you are withholding information from me.”

She fell back in her chair, her mouth agape. “Withholding information. About those ridiculous items? I know no more about them than you do, apparently. I was right, you see. It is merely a stupid, mean-spirited joke.” She whacked her thigh with her self-help book. “I wish I had never come.”

 

She planned to leave the following morning. It was during the night that Roger had his epiphany, whether sleeping or waking he was not sure. But the solution to the riddle Aunt Lucerne had brought suddenly seemed as obvious as could be. He told her this at breakfast.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Your name means your name.”

“What?”

“Lucerne.”

“Lucerne means Lucerne?”

“You put Lucerne in the recess covered by the tape saying ‘Your name.'”

“What on earth for?”

“The cheesehead,” Roger said patiently. “It is Swiss cheese.”

“Lucerne, Switzerland?” Philip asked. “You think there is someone named MacLivid in Lucerne?”

“I doubt it very much.”

“But MacLivid is lettered on the pig.”

“Numbered, not lettered. I think he was using Roman numerals.”

Mouth still open, Aunt Lucerne looked from one nephew to the other, as if she had fallen among idiots. They were trying to establish the numerical equivalent of MacLivid.

“Forget the ‘A’ after the initial ‘Mac.’ He presumed we would substitute ‘Mc.'”

“One thousand one hundred.”

“Eleven hundred,” Roger agreed. “But it is a jerry-built construction. I think it means 11541500.”

“And what does that mean?” Aunt Lucerne said, but she was unable to retain her note of indignation.

“It means that I have to take a long trip,” Philip said.

 

Roger was left to entertain Aunt Lucerne, who wanted him to go over his interpretation of her inheritance again and again. Each time he explained, she shook her head as she listened. “It doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s a riddle.”

“Fergus was mean but he was not capable of anything as complicated as this.”

“It’s not complicated.”

She turned down her mouth, as if Roger were congratulating himself.

“I’ll bet your brother will find a Mr. MacLivid.”

“You mean Monsieur MacLivid. Or Herr. Maybe even Signore MacLivid.”

Aunt Lucerne tuned him out, going back to her book. Roger had managed a peek at its contents. Its chapter titles suggested a diffidence foreign to Aunt Lucerne. Don’t Undersell Yourself. You’re Right Until You Say You’re Wrong. Ten Tips on How to Win Arguments. Among the ten Roger found: Never concede. Be aggressive. He began to think that his aunt had written the book.

Two days later Philip called long distance from Switzerland. Aunt Lucerne had snatched up the phone.

“What do you mean, Bingo?”

“Roger was right.”

“You found a Mr. MacLivid.”

“Is Roger there?”

“I’m on the other phone, Phil.”

“It was the number of a safe-deposit box but it was also the name in which the box had been taken out.”

“Did they let you see what was in it?”

“No, but they let Mr. MacLivid.”

“And we are now talking to him?”

“Aunt Lucerne, are you still on? There was a message with the money.”

“A message?”

“‘Put this in your piggy bank.’ That’s the message.”

“You say there’s money?”

“A great deal of money.”

“But how much?”

“Enough to fill a piggy bank.”

When Roger came back to the living room, his aunt sat with her hand still on the hung up telephone, wearing a stunned expression as she stared at the fireless grate. When she became aware of Roger’s presence, she turned and looked sharply at him. But then the expression faded and she looked at him almost with fondness.

“Fergus was a good man.”

“I hope he didn’t steal the money.”

This sent her into an extended fit of agitation, but soon she had convinced herself that her dear Fergus would not do anything either unethical or illegal.

She professed to find it endearing that he had made over his money to her in so oblique a manner.

“Well, what good is an empty piggy bank?” Roger asked.

Her eye roved over her nephew’s expansive self and a cutting remark seemed to form itself on her lips. But she forbore scolding him.

“What good indeed?”

 

This story originally appeared in the March 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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