Introducing—The Knights Tales: Ralph Mclnerny, creator of Father Dowling, offers the first in a series of moral mysteries written for Crisis.
Given his enormous size, Roger Knight was capable of discomfort in any season, with the result that he had come to appreciate them all, but the winter scene at their window suggested to his brother Philip the ultimate level of hell.
“I’ll show you the Dore illustrations of Dante to prove it.”
Roger ignored him. He had been seated on a couch facing the expanse of the front lawn as it went out to their fence along the road, and now he sat forward.
“When did it stop snowing, Phil?”
“Who said it stopped?”
But Roger had heaved himself to his feet and now stood at the window, blotting out the light. “We had a visitor during the night.”
The trail led up along the road and then detoured across the lawn in the direction of the barn. Philip, standing next to him now, observed that the footprints were all but covered over.
“The wind makes it hard to know how fresh they are. We better check, Phil.”
“The tracks could go right on into the woods.”
But they did not. The door of the shed beside the barn had been opened and shut during the night, leaving a fanlike tracing on the snow. From the back porch, Roger watched his brother, booted now, the hood of his coat pulled over his head, move cautiously toward the barn. The shed did not open easily. Phil peered in, after having first thrust his flashlight into the unlit interior. With a cry, he disappeared inside.
Roger had let himself gingerly down two steps toward the snowy walk when Philip emerged from the shed, carrying someone in his arms. He shouted to Roger to go back inside, but his attention was to his footing and to the burden he bore with the gentleness of St. Christopher himself.
It was a boy, perhaps eight years old, half-frozen and more than half-asleep. He groaned slightly when Phil lay him on the couch. Roger was busy at the fireplace, trying to get it started.
“Better let me, Roger. You’ll blow us all up. Is there any oatmeal left?”
The oatmeal was a concoction of Roger’s, loaded with raisins and maple sugar and covered with cream. He carried it with devotion into the living room, where the boy had stirred awake. He looked warily from Philip to Roger.
“What’s your name?” Philip asked, but his tone was that of a truant officer. Roger elbowed him aside and pulled up a hassock and perched upon it. He aimed a spoonful of oatmeal at the boy’s mouth and he opened it in self-defense. In minutes, the bowl was empty.
The boy nodded and got into a seated position. “I don’t want to go back.”
Roger ignored him. “How about some cinnamon toast with your next bowl? Tell you what, come out to the kitchen so I don’t have to carry things.”
The boy slid off the coach and followed Roger into the kitchen, where he was installed at the table and fed until he could eat no more. A single slice of bacon remained on the platter and Roger, convinced that the boy was full, picked it up and ate it.
“Waste not, want not. Where is it you don’t want to go back to?”
“They say it’s home but it isn’t. And he isn’t my father either. I hate him.”
By seeming to give the boy only half his attention, Roger elicited the story. He had run away from a house a mile to the north that his mother and “new father” had recently bought. He had been taken there from his real father. Roger shook his head sadly. Half the marriages in the country were said to end in divorce, and this youngster was one of the casualities of the cavalier attitude toward the marriage bond.
“What’s your new father’s name?” Philip asked, his tone softer this time.
A long pause. “Henry.”
Roger smiled, remembering how he had thought of St. Christopher when Phil came carrying the boy from the barn.
His name was Chris Dolman and that was his real father’s name. He had trouble remembering the name of the man his mother had now married, but finally it came out. Carter. While Roger put Chris to work, helping with the breakfast dishes, Phil put on a coat and went off to locate Henry Carter.
Roger and Chris were sitting at the computer, surfing the Web, when the phone rang. It was Phil.
“Any luck?” Roger asked in neutral tones.
“He’s dead, Roger. Henry Carter is dead.”
As a private detective, Philip Knight was used to dismissive treatment from the police, but Timmy Polk, the town constable, had been relieved when Phil arrived at the Carter house. Polk told him what he knew, which wasn’t much. Mrs. Carter had called 911, crying that her husband had been murdered. The body lay in an unheated porch on the north side of the house, face down, the thick hair matted with blood from a wound in the head. Mortimer the coroner was examining the body, his breathing visible in the frigid air, his nose twitching like a rabbit’s, his expression impassive. Some bodies are alive, others are dead. This was one of the dead ones.
After calling Roger, Phil looked over the scene more carefully. The body was stiff as a board and the wound seemed cauterized by the cold. He closed his eyes in order to retain the scene so he could describe it to Roger. Marie Carter’s hysterical grief turned to hysterical joy when Phil told her that her son was safe. She hadn’t realized he was missing until she found her husband’s body and immediately went to check on Chris. Of course she thought that whoever had murdered her husband had kidnapped her son. Polk had one of his deputies drive her off to the Knights.
“She was married to a man named Dolan,” Polk said. “He’s the kid’s father.”
“I’ll check him out if you like.”
“I thought the kid was with your brother?”
Phil said, “I was thinking of the body.”
Polk got the point. The former husband did not have to be a kidnapper in order to be a murderer. “You’re deputized, Knight. I mean that.”
Phil laughed it off. Working hand in glove with the constable was one thing, but he did not want to relinquish his freelance status. He left his car at the Carter house and went slowly down the drive and then along the road. He was following tracks like the ones Roger had noticed across their lawn. About fifty yards from the Carter house, Phil stopped, knelt and brushed away the snow. A hammer came into view. There was hair mingled with the blood that had congealed on it.
Home again, Phil took Roger aside and told him about the hammer.
“And you were following Chris’s tracks?”
“Where is the hammer?”
“I left it there.” From the other room came the sound of Chris chattering to his mother. The significance of the hammer thrown aside along the route that the boy had taken to their house seemed inescapable, and Phil was plunged into sadness. His promise to go see Chris’s father seemed a kind of escape.
“I’ll check out the hammer,” Roger whispered.
Jeffrey Dolan, M.D., reacted to the news of Carter’s murder by just widening his eyes, but then he sat forward, his stethoscope banging against the desk. “How is Chris?”
Philip assured him that his son was safe. “He and his mother are at our place, just up the road. My brother Roger will look after them.”
“Did you say you’re a detective?”
“In the constable’s office?”
“I’m a private detective.”
Dolan lay his manicured hands flat on the desk. His shirt was immaculate and stiffly starched; as for his tie, Roger would have called it piebald. The physician’s eyes held Philip’s.
“I want to hire you. I want you to find the man who killed Carter.”
Philip had not come seeking employment, and he doubted that Dr. Dolan had any notion of the fees he and Roger charged, the better to work less and be choosy about the cases they accepted.
“We don’t know that it was a man.”
“What do you mean?” His facade cracked as he asked the question.
“It could have been a woman.”
Dolan collapsed in relief. Had he expected Phil to say that it could have been a boy? “Will you work for me?”
“Let’s just say I’m as interested as you are in finding out who did this.”
Roger had located the hammer and had a cheering theory. “Phil, it couldn’t have been dropped there by Chris. It was flung into the snow from some distance. My guess is from a passing vehicle.”
“But Chris could have gone into the roadway.”
Roger shook his head. “His tracks exclude that. No, someone else threw that hammer where you found it.”
Suddenly, what he had brought from Dolan’s clinic took on a new importance.
As a matter of routine, Phil had lifted a veneer of snow from the street behind Dolan’s parked car that bore the imprint of the physician’s tires. Roger came with him when he drove back to the Carter house.
“I can’t go back there,” Chris’s mother had said.
“Of course not. Stay here.”
“Can I play with the computer?” Chris asked.
“No. But you can use it.”
The tire print of Dolan’s car matched tire prints in the dri¬veway of the Carter home, nearly obliterated now because of all the traffic, but clear enough. Phil put the matching samples in the freezer compartment of the Carter refrigerator.
“Are you going back to his office, Phil?”
“Of course,” Phil said grimly.
Dolan interrupted a consultation and took Phil into his office, his manner anxious. His anxiety increased when Phil told him of the discovery of the hammer.
“I was following Chris’s tracks when I came upon it.”
“I threw it there,” Dolan burst out, seeming to surprise himself, but then he repeated it. “I threw it there. I did it, Knight. I killed Carter.”
“Why! He took my wife and child. I thought I had accepted losing Marie, but I hadn’t. I was overcome by jealousy.”
“How did you kill him?”
“With that hammer you found. I threw it from the car when I drove away.” He opened a drawer of his desk, and removed some gloves, wrapped in a paper towel. “I haven’t gotten rid of these yet.”
Dolan came docilely to the constable’s office and then on to the sheriff’s. A preliminary analysis matched the blood on the gloves and that on the hammer with that of the victim. And that was that.
Phil told Roger what had happened, taking his brother to the far end of the house, away from Chris and his mother. Roger followed the account attentively although he couldn’t stop moving about on the couch, as if he were seeking an elusive comfort. He began to shake his head.
“It’s too neat, Phil.”
“It’s just neat enough, Roger.”
Roger’s unwillingness to accept the fact that Dolan’s confession closed the case made Phil uneasy. His mountainous brother had a way of making the obvious obscure and vice versa, but all too often his rejection of the obvious led to the solution of the case they were on. Did Roger, despite what he had said about the hammer, think Chris had killed his “new” father? It suddenly dawned on Phil that this was exactly what Dr. Dolan thought. No wonder he had confessed. By taking the blame, he could protect his son.
Roger seemed lost in reverie as he rocked back and forth on the couch. Was he thinking what this would do to the boy psychologically? The fact that Chris had said nothing about what had happened at the Carter house before he fled seemed ominous now. Had he blotted it from his mind?
Roger rocked back, forward and then got himself upright with a gasping sound. Succulent aromas had been drifting to them from the kitchen and now Marie called them to table. Phil supposed he should be grateful for this, but he found himself resenting the woman’s helpfulness. Of course she had to get her mind off recent events. Good Lord, had she witnessed Chris’s attack on her new husband? And how had the boy managed to run away?
Spaghetti, salad, mountains of garlic bread—a meal that Phil himself might have prepared, but his would never have tasted as good as this. Roger was rosy with contentment, although he had drunk no wine, just a bottle and a half of mineral water. Chris watched in awe as Roger ate, and his mother’s delight gave way to concern that the food would not be enough. Roger rubbed his face with his napkin.
“Check my e-mail, will you, Chris?”
This was something he had earlier shown the boy how to do. Chris scampered off to the study and Roger looked at Marie over his glasses.
“The hammer has been found, Marie.”
“It was found beside the tracks Chris made when he came here last night.”
She looked from Roger to Phil. “Surely you don’t think …”
“Your husband was at your house last night, wasn’t he? Your first husband?”
“Jeff?” She assumed a look of disbelief. “Why would he have been there?”
Phil intervened, desperate to comfort the distraught woman. “He’s already confessed, Marie. And everything bears out the truth of what he says. He was there, he threw away the hammer when he left, he still had the bloody gloves he wore.”
“What really happened last night?” Roger asked her.
She drew in breath slowly, and then said, “It wasn’t Jeff. I did it. I killed Henry.”
Phil smiled indulgently. “And then threw the hammer away where it was found?”
Her eyes darted from brother to brother. “No. That was Jeff. I called him and told him what I had done. He insisted on coming. He thought that if we made it appear that someone had broken in ….”
Polk’s reaction to the news that Marie had confessed to the murder of Henry Carter was that she and Dolan had done it together. That was when Roger asked to visit the scene of the crime. The constable assured him it had been gone over with a fine-tooth comb and he could tell Roger anything he wanted to know right here in his office. But Roger persisted and soon they were on their way to the Carter house, in the van, with Polk following reluctantly. He was an unhappy guide, grousing as he led them to the unheated porch where the body had been found. Roger stared at the spot of blood on the carpet, blinking and humming.
“Let’s look at the rest of the house.”
“This is where the body was found,” Polk protested. “Carter didn’t die here,” Roger said.
“What do you mean?”
Phil convinced Polk to humor Roger and they followed him as he moved slowly through the living room and eased himself through the door of the den. Polk assured him that no one had disturbed this room. “I’ve never been in here before.”
But Roger had stooped to study a framed diploma that was propped on the leather couch. His eyes lifted to the wall and he began to nod. A moment later he was tugging a towel out from under, the couch. It was discolored with dried blood. The carpet had been hastily cleaned, but it too was stained.
“This is where it happened,” Roger said. “They must have taken the body from here to the porch.”
“Marie and Dr. Dolan.”
“Why don’t we let them tell us that.”
Questioned closely, with Mortimer there and Polk’s deputy, the two con¬fessed murderers seemed unsure what exactly had happened and their stories constantly conflicted. Mortimer said the body had been dead for hours by the time the 911 call had been made and Polk and Phil took turns questioning the hapless man and woman. Finally Roger held up a hand.
“Marie, was it Chris’s absence that made you think he had done it?”
“Chris! No, of course not. I did it.”
Dolan insisted that he did. “I turned over the bloody gloves; I threw away the murder weapon.”
“But it wasn’t a murder weapon,” Roger said sweetly, and everyone stared at him. “Carter must have been standing on the couch to drive the nail on which to hang that framed diploma. You can see it there, hardly driven into the wall at all. I imagine he lost his balance but kept gripping the hammer because it was the only thing he could get hold of. I suspect that he flailed about and it got behind his head, and he fell on it when he struck the floor.”
Silence. Marie looked at Roger and then at her former husband. She was trying to see the scene as Roger described it.
“After you found Carter’s body you discovered Chris was missing, didn’t you?”
She began to nod, seeing it all now. That was when she had called Dolan and of course he had come immediately. Both father and mother assumed that Chris had killed the new father he hated and their first and common impulse was to protect their son.
Polk was reluctant to release his prisoner, but eventually Marie and Dolan were at the Knights, reunited with Chris. They seemed appalled that they had imagined their son had actually killed a man. The three sat huddled together on the couch, the fire blazing and Phil mulling wine. Roger took Chris off to the kitchen for hot chocolate. The boy was delighted by the apparent reunion of his parents.
“What was the diploma?” Phil asked later, when every-one had gone and they had the house to themselves again.
“It was a certificate of recognition.”
“Carter was a blood donor.”
“Greater love than this …” Roger began, but then his voice faded as he began to doubt the appropriateness of the allusion.