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Rook Takes Knight
A Howie Rook Mystery
By Stuart Palmer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1968 Jennifer Palmer
All rights reserved.
Midnight is the fabled witching hour. It is the time for young and star-crossed lovers to cling to each other in parked jalopies past all parental curfews, the time for lonely men of a certain age to take long walks and count their rosaries of remembered sins, and now and again it is the time to hear the beating of dark and invisible wings overhead.
Dragged forward by a tireless and impetuous black spaniel, the tall, long-striding man in the dark suit was almost to the middle of the crosswalk when he kept his own appointment in Samarra. He was whistling the melancholy "September Song" under his breath—but it was to be his last breath. From out of nowhere and the misty southern California night came the screaming Juggernaut of a station wagon.
There was the sickening sound of impact, and then man and beast rose in seeming slow motion to describe eccentric cartwheels in the air. Even in dying they were still grotesquely linked by the leather leash. Then they crumpled into shapeless nothings in the gutter, some twenty feet from the intersection, and were forever still.
The station wagon roared on past its victims, and also past the Model-A Ford parked inconspicuously in the shadow of an overhanging eucalyptus. There a boy and a girl had just been engaged in the slow process of untwining themselves and returning to the world from their own special Dreamsville. He had just flicked on his headlights, preparatory to taking the girl home (not more than twenty minutes late, if he drove all-out) almost at the split second of the tragedy. Now, though they had already seen more than they wanted to, they turned their heads to look incredulously after the speeding car. Just before it vanished in the distance they saw its lights flash on.
He was nineteen and she was sixteen (or almost) and their reactions to a "happening" like this were fairly predictable. The boy reached for the ignition key, but the girl caught his arm. "What are we going to do?" She was shaking with excitement.
"Don't lose your cool, hipchick. What's it got to do with us? We're not getting involved!"
"So we just drive off and leave him in the gutter, like old garbage or something?"
"He's good and dead! And remember, your folks think we're at a walk-in movie in Westwood. This comes out and they're going to start screaming again and accuse us of making out in the heap, and we're still sort of on probation for what happened Easter Week, don't forget!" Just then a porch light came on across the street and a front door opened. "See?" cried the boy in mingled triumph and relief. "Somebody else heard the smash, and they'll rush to the phone and call the fuzz, so everything will be taken care of without our sticking our little necks out at all!" He put the hot-rod into a racing start and they were soon away from the scene of the tragedy, oblivious and uninvolved.
But one thing leads to another. Not quite twenty-four hours later, in the Stygian darkness of a small bachelor apartment on Larrabee Street in a dingy section of West Hollywood, the phone rang suddenly (how else?) and rang again and kept on ringing. Howie Rook unrolled his ursine bulk from the blankets, trod heavily out into the living room, and his "Hello!" was the rumbling protest of a grizzly dragged out of hibernation.
"Howie, old buddy!" It was Hal Agnews' voice, the honeyed tones usually reserved for jurors and for lady clients. "Hope I didn't wake you from rosy dreams of Sophia Loren?"
"If you must know, Counselor, I had Tigran Petrosian trapped in the finals of the World Match in Moscow, using the Caro-Kann variation of the Collé system, and it was inevitable mate in three. Why did you have to go and spoil it all?"
"Because I need you, Howie. It's a case—a big one!" The effervescent defense attorney had no regular investigator on his staff, and so sometimes called on Rook for odd jobs of snooping.
"Like the other 'big one' where you were defending those loft robbers and sent me on a stakeout at a junkyard in Hawthorne for three nights in the rain? Or that multiple-assault thing where in one weekend I dug up more against our client than the police had been able to find in a month?"
"I said a big one and I meant it. Involving a lady in a jam. She's lovelier even than Miss Holly Wood, the stripper I sent you a while back. And believe you me, this girl—she's still only in her early twenties—is in even worse trouble! Will you lend a hand?" Agnews knew very well that under the crusty exterior, Rook had a romantic, almost quixotic streak in him, and sometimes played shamelessly on that weakness.
"When you say 'big one' you must mean homicide, and I haven't seen anything in the papers recently that was even worth clipping for my files. Or hasn't this broken yet?"
"Then you didn't happen to read in the afternoon paper about Mr. John Charteris, socialite sportsman and civic figure, who got clobbered by a hit-and-run driver out in Brentwood last night?"
"N-no, I—wait! Was that the one where the man was walking the family dog, and both he and the pooch got hit at some dark intersection? I remembered it because of the dog." Rook liked dogs.
"That's the one. Our old friend Wilt Mays of the D.A.'s office, whom you will remember with mingled loathing and respect, has leaped to the conclusion that Charteris' death was accidently on purpose—mostly because the driver didn't touch his brakes. No skid marks."
"Maybe the driver didn't even see the pedestrian or the dog. Anybody walking at night should have sense enough to wear light-colored clothing or carry a newspaper or something—"
"Will you shut up and listen? An old man named Wilson, living on Darlington near the corner of Gretna Green where it all happened, came out onto his porch in time to see an old hot-rod being driven away from the scene, two kids in it. Just innocent bystanders, it seems. But they undoubtedly saw it happen."
"That doesn't help much," said Rook. "Unless they're located."
"The police think they have the murder car. I got tipped off that the couple who owned it had left it—with the keys in the dash—on the parking lot of an all-night supermarket on San Vicente, about eleven P.M. They thought it wasn't quite where they'd left it when they came out with their groceries, but they didn't know anything was really wrong until they got home and discovered the front end was damaged—a dented fender, a cracked headlight, and some messy gobs of what the police lab identified as human and animal blood, plus fur and fabric. So evidently the car was borrowed for the express purpose of murder, then politely returned."
"People who leave keys in their cars!" put in Rook. "I could show you clippings of what can happen ..."
"Okay, Howie! It did happen, and this looks like one for the book. Charteris was a wealthy and prominent man, member of the Jonathan Club and Riviera Country Club, and all that. He played the stock market and dabbled in real estate and in horse racing and had a lot of irons in a lot of fires. There had even been talk of running him for Congress one of these days. There's going to be one hell of a stink about this."
"Murder by auto happens today a lot oftener than most people realize. It's easy to cover up as an accident, or at least a lot of hopefuls think it's going to be. Why, I've got a whole shoebox full of clippings—"
"Howie, never mind your damn collection of clippings at a time like this! How soon can you throw on a pair of pants and get over here?"
"All the way downtown, at this ungodly hour? Can't it wait until morning?" Rook had worked all day on a true-crime article and was dog-tired.
"It can't wait at all! I've been with the client, Mrs. Deirdre Charteris, all evening. Didn't get a lot out of her except a few free drinks and a very damp shoulder. I just came out to a pay phone to call you, because I wouldn't put it past Wilt Mays to have had her phone bugged. But believe you me, there's one angle to this case that'll make your blood boil!"
"When you get to the ripe old age of fifty, the boiling point isn't as low as it once was. Of course our fair client is innocent as a newborn babe?" Agnews was so defense-minded, Rook sometimes complained, that he could convince himself of the innocence of any client who didn't actually walk into the office with a smoking gun in one hand and the loot in the other.
But this time the little attorney hesitated. "We'll go into the question of guilt or innocence later. Anyway, the late Mr. Charteris deserved all he got, and more. According to my information, they haven't got a whole lot against our client. But you know Wilt Mays, likes to see his name and his picture in the papers. The police weren't bearing down hard enough, he felt, so he's more or less taken over. He also had his operatives question the widow when she had to come down to the morgue this morning and make identification. So she got caught in a lie or two, but then she had sense enough to clam up and refuse to talk any more without an attorney present. She got my name from somebody and called me and I leaped into the fracas. First off I got Mays to agree, very reluctantly, to hold off taking any further action until after the funeral, which is at four on Saturday. Then, unless we can come up with something, I've got to surrender our client for interrogation and presumably formal arrest on suspicion of murdering her husband. Only, Howie, when you see her you'll understand why she shouldn't have to be behind bars for even one day!"
"Barbara Graham was quite a looker, too," Rook reminded him. "But she still had the dubious honor of being the fourteenth woman to be legally executed in the entire history of the U.S.A."
"Never mind the ancient history! Snap out of it and meet me at the Charteris house as soon as you can. The address is 998 Tigertail Road, Brentwood—up the canyon off Kenter Drive. You come out Sunset past the freeway and turn right—"
"I know, I know!" Having been a working newspaperman, everything from copy boy to city editor, most of his life, he knew greater Los Angeles better than he sometimes wanted to. "Give me forty-five minutes," he said, and hung up.
Then, with a deftness surprising in a man of his bulk, he showered himself awake, shaved himself smooth, clad himself in a pair of almost clean if baggy slacks and his one decent tweed jacket. Knotting his tie before the mirror he wished that he had remembered to get a haircut this month—but that couldn't be helped.
As he drove swiftly but not too swiftly westward he was thinking that this must be a highly unusual case, for it was rare for Hal Agnews ever to condescend to see a client except by appointment in his Gothic sanctum sanctorum of an office down on First Street, or—if they'd been arrested—in the visitors' rooms on the prison floors of the grim Hall of Justice nearby. Hal must be taking this one very seriously—which meant that there was drama, publicity or money in it, maybe all three.
Rook found the big house on Tigertail Road without difficulty, for it would be hard to miss Hal Agnews' long black Cadillac, traditional status symbol of the successful trial lawyer, in the driveway. He left his own car in the street and strode toward the front door, the keen eyes under the bushy red eyebrows missing very little. Up the street a gray sedan was parked by a vacant lot, headed in this direction, with somebody sitting as inconspicuously as possible behind the wheel. "Stakeout," said Rook to himself. The authorities weren't just fooling, then. He noticed the dichondra lawn, smooth as a billiard table and bearing a wrought-iron sign that read "Beware the Dog" (pitiful now). To the left of the house was a garage, open and with a sleek Lincoln Continental and a small red MG in evidence. Partly blocking them was a brown Volkswagen, of indeterminate age. The house itself, not quite a mansion but certainly in well over the $75,000 bracket, was a two-story neo-Georgian edifice set apart from its neighbors on either side, and well surrounded by trees and shrubs.
Rook hesitated before striking the bronze Cupid which was the door knocker, taking a moment to straighten his tie and smooth back his shaggy ginger-colored hair. Just in case the client was half as lovely as Hal had described her over the phone.
But when he knocked, it wasn't the lady herself who answered. It was Hal Agnews, and the usually dapper little attorney looked as if he had been through the wringer. His collar was open, his tie was loose, and there were pouches of fatigue under his eyes. "About time, Howie!"
Rook caught the other's arm, pointing up the street. But the attorney only shrugged. "So the place is under surveillance! Wilt Mays isn't taking any chances, I guess. Come on inside, Howie. Our client is upstairs and her sister is trying to calm her down a little. It will give me a chance to give you a fast fill-in."
They came into a living room not quite as large as a tennis court, furnished—no, the word should be decorated—in what Rook thought of as Beverly Hills Byzantine. Over the mantelpiece was the portrait in oils of a strikingly beautiful brunette in a low-cut gown of aquamarine velvet; the painting, the gown, and the lady herself all looked beautiful and expensive.
"That's her," said Agnews as he caught Rook's admiring glance. "Mrs. Deirdre Charteris, usually called 'Dee.' Howie, can you honestly imagine that gorgeous body in jail calico?" He gestured toward a nearby portable bar. "Drink?"
Rook shook his head. "You know I never touch anything but lager, and little enough of that these days." He dropped into the most comfortable chair in sight. "Let's have it," he said. "What is the case, essentially? Just another matter of when anybody gets murdered, grab the spouse?"
The attorney frowned. "That's part of it, of course. But it's the theory of Assistant D.A. Mays, to some extent at least concurred in by Sergeant McDowd, that Deirdre is really good for it. She's supposed to have taken her little sports car, shortly after her husband set out with the dog for his usual long walk before bedtime, and driven down to the supermarket parking lot. There she's supposed to have looked around until she found a car—any car—with the keys in it. Charteris was a methodical man and usually took the same route—down Tigertail to Kenter and across Sunset and all the way down to Wilshire or farther and then coming back by way of Gretna Green. She is supposed to have located him from a distance, circled around and lain in wait for him on Darlington until he was dead center in the crosswalk, and then run him down."
"There's a lot of supposing in that," Rook observed.
"There may have been some eyewitnesses, the teen-age couple in the parked jalopy, but they haven't come forward. Anyway, Deirdre is then supposed to have returned the borrowed car to the lot, picked up her own car from wherever she'd stashed it, and come on home. There seems to be a time lapse of about thirty minutes or so, and Mays thinks she went somewhere with the idea of trying to establish an alibi, but that's just wild guessing. Anyway, that's the picture."
"Not in such sharp focus. What's supposed to be the motive?"
"It's no secret that all was not well between husband and wife, though they both usually managed to put up a good front. But the Filipino servants who come in by the day admitted to the police that they'd heard Charteris roaring that before he'd consent to a divorce somebody would die first, or something equally melodramatic. He'd sounded off before others, including Dee's sister Mary, who's upstairs with her now, about how he'd never consent to a divorce or a legal separation. Probably because it would hurt his image as a potential political candidate and also because what was his was his, period. He seems to have been a man with feudal ideas about the status of a wife."
Rook looked up at the portrait and said, "'There's my last duchess hanging on the wall, looking as if she were alive ...' as Mr. Browning said. Something like that?"
"Yes. Charteris was a de' Medici at heart, and he might even have killed her sooner or later in one of his rages. A real Jekyll-Hyde character. Dee had even talked to a divorce lawyer, but no action had been instituted. That's enough of the general background and the gist of the People's case from what I can pry out of McDowd and from my sources in the D.A.'s office. Now I want to show you what may be Exhibit A for the Defense, if this thing ever actually comes up for trial." He took a small manila envelope out of his pocket, bearing the stamp of the neighborhood pharmacy. He chose one out of several four-by- five color prints and handed it over. "There's a whole roll of the things," he said. "But this is the best—or the worst."
Rook took one look, did a quick double-take, and then studied the photo critically, almost incredulously. His very insides turned over with revulsion. The photo showed a half-naked woman—the same beautiful woman in the portrait above the fireplace—with her face in profile, her back to the camera. The smooth white flesh of that lovely back and those shoulders was criss-crossed with savage black and blue and purple welts, obviously from a savage and atrocious beating.
Excerpted from Rook Takes Knight by Stuart Palmer. Copyright © 1968 Jennifer Palmer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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