Columbo: Call Me Dead
Columbo: Call Me Dead
Vivienne Corbin turned back to the camera leaving the frozen image of a woman being led away in handcuffs by police on the screen behind her.
‘Rosa Parks was arrested after an eagle eyed viewer called in to report her whereabouts. This just shows how important your calls can be. All information will be treated with discretion and all callers will have full confidentiality. I will be interviewing Harry Trask about the recent arrest’s of an entire international drug ring right here on Crime Alert after this commercial break.’
In the green room of the Crime Alert studio Harry Trask sat rubbing the sweat from his palms with a handkerchief. He had always suffered from a mortal dread of speaking in public and now he was about to go live into millions of peoples homes across the country, but if he could do that then he could do anything. Gerald McKray paced the room anxiously stopping every few steps to look at Harry’s sweaty, quivering mass.
‘Why are you doing the interview, Harry? I thought we agreed that I would handle all the media and PR for the agency.’
Harry shifted uneasily in his seat trying to find a comfortable position. Due to his considerable girth this was no easy feat.
‘It’s about time I got over my irrational fear of public speaking. Now seems as good a time as any.’
‘This is a very important interview, Harry. I hope you know what you’re doing.’
‘Don’t worry, Gerald. I know I’m doing the right thing.’
Gerald stopped pacing and turned to Harry meeting his cruel stare. It was that look that had faced so many criminals over the years and turned countless numbers of them into blubbering shells; eager to admit their crimes and pledge earnestly that their criminal ways were a thing of the past. It didn’t have that effect on him.
’What do you mean the right thing?’
‘I thought as well as discussing the recent drug bust we made I’m also going to announce the sad news that my partner of twenty years is leaving the agency for pastures new.’
Gerald almost flew at him, ‘You said you would give me time to sort all that out.’
‘You don’t need to worry, Gerald. I’m not going to reveal your dirty little secret…yet. I just want to be sure that you can’t go back on your word about leaving. Once its public there’s not much you can do about it.’
Gerald had been expecting something to happen over the past few days but not an announcement on live television. That had never been Harry’s style. His usual technique would typically involve some kind of mental warfare before an all out assault, but that was reserved for the more spirited offenders. Maybe there was a way he could stop this from happening. Before he could make another plea a little bald head popped round the door.
‘Two minutes, Mr Trask.’
‘Better not disappoint my public,’ said Harry pulling himself out of the chair. Before he left he took one last look at Gerald who had sunk down onto the couch; his head in his hands.
‘Please,’ said Gerald weakly. ‘You can’t do this to me.’
Harry gave a grunt, ‘you did this to yourself so don’t go expecting sympathy from me. Oh, and enjoy your retirement.’
Gerald watched him leave, his eyes burning into Harry’s back. He was left no choice, Harry had to be stopped and the only way Gerald could see to ensure silence was for Harry to die
The interview had gone perfectly so far and Harry had remained calm and professional throughout, even if he did sip at his water a few too many times he never exhibited any sign of nervousness. Vivienne had questioned him about the clues that had pointed them in the direction of the drug ring and its criminal activities and how they had managed to zero in on the kingpins (as Vivienne had described them). Also Harry mentioned the other organizations that had been crucial to the case and how his team had given one hundred percent throughout the entire operation. As Vivienne was about to move onto the next story Harry asked if he could make an announcement.
‘Please do,’ said Vivienne waving an arm at the camera in front of them. He wished she hadn’t done that. Now he remembered all those millions of people at home watching him this very moment. He gulped down some water and continued.
‘The Trask and McKray security agency has been going strong for near twenty years now and it is with a heavy heart that I must announce that my partner, Gerald McKray, is going to be leaving the agency shortly. His decision has been painstakingly thought through and I just wanted this opportunity to wish him the best in any future endeavors. Good bye, Gerald.’
‘That was cruel,’ said Gerald slipping into the driver’s seat of his Ferrari. Harry wrestled himself into the passenger seat. He resembled a marshmallow that had been crammed into a thimble.
‘I told you that it was only a precaution in case you tried to wriggle out of our deal. It wasn’t meant to be malicious in any way.’
‘Course not. I can see how you were thinking of me and my feelings the whole time.’
‘You gave up your right to lecture me when you…did what you did.’
‘It wasn’t the end of the world, Harry. Surely we can come back and carry on stronger from this.’
Harry shook his head solemnly, ‘There is no “carrying on” or “coming back”. You are out and that is final.’
Gerald screeched the car out of the parking lot almost colliding with two other vehicles heading in the direction of their office. The journey back was travelled in a bitter silence.
Harry lowered himself into his specially designed office chair, the only one he could nestle his bulk comfortably into. He opened his desk drawer and pulled out a sheet of paper and handed it to Gerald who had entered behind him.
‘What’s that, a confession I suppose?’
‘That is the contract I had drawn up for you. All you have to do is sign it and your problems will be over.’
Harry took the pen from his desk set that been a personal gift from the King of an Arabic nation for the security personnel the agency had organized for his trip to Los Angeles many years ago. That hadn’t ended well-one of the diplomats from the King’s homeland had murdered the chief of security at the embassy and had been arrested. Luckily that was not any part of the security that Harry had arranged.
‘My problems would be just beginning. What would I do for money? How would I live?’
‘I think your criminal scum friends would help you out after all the assistance you gave them. I just want you out so I can keep the reputation of this agency from being dragged down by your actions.’
‘This says that I just hand over my half of the agency. Hand it over? You don’t buy me out; I just give it to you for nothing.’
‘Hardly nothing,’ said Harry opening another drawer and taking out a thick file. He flicked through it casually. ‘This would disappear along with your troubles. It would make interesting reading for the media…and the police. Sign the contract, Gerald.’
Gerald read through the contract again. There was no way out…no legal way at least. He handed the contract back to Harry.
‘Giving a copy to the media would irreversibly damage the agency’s reputation. I can’t believe you would really go through with it.’
‘There’s no doubt about my motives for this. All I have to say is I discovered what a cheating low life you are and that I acted in the best interests of the agency. Its reputation would survive relatively unharmed because all the attention would be focused on you and your crimes. This really is your only option.’
Gerald knew that Harry meant what he said and wouldn’t have the slightest hesitation in acting upon his threat. Gerald had to think quickly. Maybe appealing to his partner’s sense of compassion, if he had one, was his only option.
‘Would you be willing to give me some time to sort some personal things out before this is all finalized?’
‘I wouldn’t want anyone to say I was a heartless man. I will give you the weekend to sort out your sad excuse for a life, and then Monday morning you sign or go to prison…it’s your choice. Until tomorrow night these files can stay here in the safe then first thing Monday morning I will deliver them to our media and law enforcement friends personally.’
It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than nothing and at least he would have access to those files. As if reading his mind Harry said, ’Oh, I’ve changed the combination for the safe, just in case you had any thoughts of getting in there after hours.
‘I’d better get started then,’ said Gerald walking to the door.
Harry called after him, ‘Don’t try anything, Gerald. It wouldn’t be wise.’
Gerald stopped at the secretary’s desk in the reception on his way out. He knew there would be hell to pay with her because of Harry’s announcement on live TV. Deidre sat typing away at her computer paying no attention to Gerald.
‘I’m sorry, Deidre.’
She typed faster as if not hearing him. He sat on the desk and tried to take her hand. She pulled away and continued her work.
‘At least hear me out.’
Her fingers suddenly stopped and wavered over the keys. She was angry with him but still felt some deep feelings for him. Almost every day for the past ten years she and Gerald had participated in some form of flirting and it wouldn’t hurt to listen. If she didn’t like what she heard there was always her work to get back to. Her cold eyes met the warmth of his.
‘I was going to tell you, honest. But loud mouth Harry had to blab it to the world first. Besides there’s something I need to ask you later and I’m hoping that it will make us friends again.’
He smiled down at her as her eyes thawed and that loving glow came back to her face. His smile was enough to make any woman’s heart skip a beat or two and it had the same effect on her. Gerald leaned in close for a kiss and Deidre was about to meet him halfway when the phone rang on her desk. Cursing her luck she answered.
‘Trask and McKray security services, this is Deidre speaking. How can I help you?’
Gerald stood up and blew a kiss to her. She waved to keep him there but he tapped his watch to say he didn’t have time to wait. She placed her hand over the mouthpiece, ‘It’s the Mayor. He says he wants to thank you for your help in the Simmons case.’
‘Take a message.’
Then he paused. That gave him an idea; an idea how Harry could meet a hasty end and give himself an alibi at the same time. Thanks for those two days Harry, Gerald thought. The only thing I’m going to sign is your death warrant.
‘I need you to meet me here at four,’ said Gerald looking around the seedy barroom. It was the kind of place he wouldn’t be caught dead in and that meant he would be safe meeting anyone he didn’t want to be seen with.
‘I got my girl coming round tonight, man. Can’t we do it tomorrow?’ asked the voice on the phone.
‘Listen,’ said Gerald. ‘I need to see you today, Nick. No exceptions.’
‘But I told ya…’
‘This means big money for you. We’re talking a couple of hundred thousand if you can pull it off.’
The line went quiet.
‘Four at the Chop Shop it is,’ said Nick excitedly. Gerald knew the mention of money would hook Nick, now he just had to convince him the job was worth it.
‘I’ve had my best men on this case, Mrs Kline, and I’m pleased to say that the woman your husband was meeting was his sister from Nebraska.’
The attractive blonde woman across the desk from Harry smiled.
‘You’re sure, Mr Trask?’
Harry handed her the folder he had been reading from. She quickly read it and put it back on the desk.
‘I never knew he had a sister. Why didn’t he tell me?’
‘It seems Mr Kline’s sister had spent some time in detention for shop lifting back in Nebraska. Because of the nature of his work it was best for him to keep it confidential even from you. You have a good husband and I suggest you sit down and talk things through with him. It might bring you closer together.’
Mrs Kline brushed away a tear and pulled a check from her purse. Harry waved it aside.
‘You have paid me until the end of the week, but my work is done. I will gladly pay you back what is owed to you and then our business is complete.’
‘I insist you take this, Mr Trask. You have given my marriage a new lease of life and laid my suspicions to rest; I’m grateful to you for that.’
‘If you insist I will keep what you have already paid, but that check will go to a charity of your choice.’
Mrs Kline stood and offered a hand. Harry shook it and gave a slight bow to the woman. As she left the office Gerald came bounding through the door.
‘So you do have a charitable bone in your body?’ he said with a hint of sarcasm.
’It was the right and honest thing to do,’ replied Harry. ‘Not that you would understand the meaning of honesty.’
‘I don’t want to get back into that again. Would you at least have lunch with me today?’
Harry was shocked by the suggestion. ‘You want me to have lunch with you? What’s brought this on?’
‘I realize when I’m beat, but we’ve been together for too long to part ways as enemies. Give me the chance to at least do something pleasant for you before we call it a day. You know “no hard feelings” I think is the phrase.’
‘Suppose it wouldn’t hurt for you to leave on a more respectable note. No more clients have appointments until two. If we make it quick I will be glad to accept your offer of lunch.’
As they were leaving Harry asked Deidre to take any messages until he returned. Gerald couldn’t help but smirk at the fact that Harry had just said those few words that would later aid Gerald in Harry’s demise.
‘See you when we get back,’ said Gerald kissing Deidre’s hand gently.
‘Don’t forget that question you wanted to ask me later,’ Deidre shouted after him.
When they got to the car Gerald started patting his pockets. ‘Damn! I left my car keys on your desk.’
‘Hurry up and get them. I’m starving.’
Your always starving, you fat pig, thought Gerald. ‘I’ll go and get them.’
Deidre gave him a quizzical look as he entered the reception.
‘Harry forgot his keys so he sends me up to get them.’
‘Aren’t you the little Samaritan?’
Gerald went to Harry’s desk and pulled open the top drawer. He took out a set of keys and sorted through them. He took two from the ring and put the rest back in the drawer. He blew a kiss to Deidre and raced back out to his car where harry had taken a seat on the bonnet of the Ferrari.
‘Once we’ve ordered I just need to go along to the jewelers for a ring. I’m going to ask Deidre to marry me.’
‘She’s a fool if she says yes, but she’s old enough to make her own mistakes.’
What Harry didn’t realize was that the jeweler wasn’t the only stop Gerald had to make. Three doors down from the jewelers was a key cutting cubicle that was one more step in the plan of his death.
It had taken less than ten minutes for Gerald to excuse himself from the restaurant and collect the engagement ring then have the two keys from Harry’s key ring copied. As usual when someone else was footing the bill Harry had ordered one of the most expensive items from the menu; a steak the size of a car tire sat half eaten when Gerald returned to his healthy option Caesar salad. The rest of the meal and the trip back to the office were spent in silence, as was becoming the norm for them. Deidre looked up from her computer screen expectantly, anticipating what was about to happen. The playful smile on Gerald’s face made her want to scream with excitement. Gerald stopped at the side of her desk and dropped to one knee pulling the small red jewelry box from his jacket pocket. Deidre’s eye widened as a tear ran down her cheek.
Gerald cleared his throat. ‘Deidre, would you make me the happiest man in the world and marry me?’
For the briefest of moments Deidre was motionless but then threw her arms around Gerald’s neck with so much force that they almost fell into a heap on the reception floor.
‘I will, I will,’ she cried as he pulled her tightly against him for a tender kiss. He took her hand and slipped the ring on her finger. She eyed it in complete awe, it must have cost a fortune-she knew she was worth every penny.
‘Hold on,’ said Gerald striding over to the office. ‘Why don’t you come and congratulate the future Mrs McKray,’ he called in.
Harry ambled back across the room and went out to offer his congratulations to the poor future Mrs McKray. Almost as soon as Harry had left the office Gerald rushed over to the desk and opened the top drawer as he had before. He replaced the two keys on the key ring and closed the drawer.
‘Will you be coming to the wedding,’ he asked appearing at Harry’s side. ‘It wouldn’t be the same without you. I’m sure Jennifer would love the chance to buy a new hat.’
Nick Bentine had turned up dead on four o’clock at the Chop Shop bar; he knew how Gerald could be if his instructions weren’t carried out to the letter. He moved to the back of the bar dodging around bikers and leather clad women who seemed to be the female equivalent; where it was a little darker thanks to the fact that most of the bulbs were blown and the owner couldn’t be bothered to change them. An old Tommy Brown song played on the jukebox in the corner. From what he could see of Gerald’s expression in the darkness this wasn’t going to be pleasant.
‘On time for once,’ said Gerald pushing out a chair for him.
‘When you wave that kind of money under my nose I’m not likely to mess you about, man. So what’s going down? We knockin’ over Fort Knox?’
‘I need to know you’re reliable, Nick. I can’t have you running around doing your own thing. If you can stick to my plan and keep your mouth shut then by Monday you are going to be a very wealthy man. How does that grab you?’
‘I can hang with your plan,’ said Nick licking his lips, the greed stirring inside him.
‘I don’t want another incident like the last one. All you had to do was wait for the signal and it would have gone off without a hitch. But you being you had to try and take that old woman’s purse sending her flying down a staircase and almost being caught by the police. That is exactly what we don’t need happening here. Got that?’
‘Loud and clear,’ said Nick placing a hand over his heart. ‘I promise.’
‘Here’s what I want you to do. You will hire a van, dark blue or black if possible. Take it back to your place for tonight. Tomorrow night at eight I need you to meet me out a Callahan Point with it. I’m going to take the van and you’ll be staying with my car until I come back. When I return I want you to take the van back to your apartment and unload it.’
‘What’ll be in it?’ interrupted Nick.
‘Just unload it. The stuff will be hot…’
‘I guessed that, man.’
‘You must fence everything from the van. Distribute it across the city; don’t use the same pawnbroker for all of it or it will arouse suspicion. Don’t let any of the items take your fancy either. I need all of it gone. Any money made from the sale of the items in question, is yours to keep and do with as you wish.’
‘That’s it? Man, I could do that with eyes closed and my arms tied behind my back.’
Gerald threw a wad of notes across the table. ‘That should cover the van hire. Take it straight back to your apartment, no driving around the city in it. One last thing I need. Can you get me a gun?’
‘You got a gun, man,’ said Nick pointing at the holster on Gerald’s belt.
‘I need another one. Preferably untraceable, but anything will do.’
Nick moved uneasily in his chair. The situation seemed to be getting out of hand and he wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to go along with it. Fencing stolen goods was old hat to him as was the odd drugs push, but guns only meant trouble.
‘What’s it for?’
‘Don’t panic. I’m only going to frighten Harry with it. You remember me telling you about Harry? He’s the one who knows about those shipments we brought into the country. This is serious.’
‘I got a guy who could get me one.’
‘See to it as soon as you can. I’ll make all your efforts worth while.’
‘When do we talk next?’
‘Don’t try to contact me after tomorrow. I’ll get in touch with you in a few days to hand over the rest of your money. I think $200,000 should do it.’
Nick’s jaw fell open.
‘See you in a few days then,’ he said in almost a whisper.
It’s all coming together nicely, thought Gerald.
That Sunday the early evening drew on and everything was in place. As Gerald left his apartment he switched on the answering machine which was the most important part of his plan. It was so simple it was brilliant. He drove up the dirt road that led up to the overlook at Callahan Point which was masked from the main road by rocks and trees. Anyone sitting in a car up there would be in complete darkness especially at this late hour. At 8 o’clock Gerald pulled up beside the black van that Nick had hired. Nick dropped the cigarette he had been smoking and walked to the car.
‘So what now?’ he said leaning into the open window.
‘I want you to sit here in my car for a few hours; sound like hard work?’
‘Sounds too easy to me. What’s the catch?’
‘Catch is you keep your mouth shut and get paid. Did you get a gun?’
Nick looked sheepishly at the ground not wanting to make eye contact with Gerald. He knew this would turn out bad.
‘Nick? Where’s the gun?’
‘My guy was nabbed last week so I couldn’t get one…’
‘I knew I couldn’t trust you,’ said Gerald slamming the car door and walking to the rear of his car. He opened the trunk and removed the tool kit inside. He took a thin screwdriver from the kit and closed the trunk. Always have a back up plan, thought Gerald.
Nick handed over the keys to the van and watched Gerald pull on a pair of surgical gloves and then roared off back down the dirt road to the main road. If Gerald needed a gun then it only meant trouble.
At 8:17 Gerald drove up the driveway and around the back of Harry’s house and jumped down from the van. Using one of the keys he had had copied he opened the back door that lead into the kitchen. He went straight for the stairs and up to the bedrooms. Every drawer and cupboard was pulled out or thrown open; the items inside strewn over the floor. The jewelry box was his next target. He emptied the contents into the pocket of the boiler suit he wore and went on to his next objective. The living room was a gadget lovers dream and nearly every item was worth more than the house. TV’s, DVD players and Hi-Fi systems were taken out to the van and deposited into the rear ready for transport back to Nick. By 8:48 Gerald had rid the house of most of its valuable articles and now was ready for the final act of the plan. He sat in the darkness on the sofa and pulled the phone close. Come on, Harry, he thought, time to die.
At 9:02 the flash of car headlights shone through the windows. This was it. Gerald picked up the phone and dialed his apartment; his voice asking him to leave a message after the tone was the answer. He took his gun from his pocket and pulled the hammer back. The sound of a key in the front door, Harry stepped in, dropped his briefcase and hung his coat on the stand. He flicked the switch for the living room lights and froze a look of confusion on his face. Gerald fired without a hesitation and Harry crashed face first into the floor.
Gerald sat stunned for a few seconds, amazed at how easily he had killed his partner. There had been no words exchanged, not even a chance for Harry to draw breath in surprise. Now there were the final components of his plan to complete. First he picked up the briefcase from the hallway floor and twisted the number dials and flicked the case open. He took the two files from inside and placed them next to the phone. Then he closed the clasps and took the screwdriver from his pocket to force them back open again. He threw the briefcase across the room and made for the front door. Gerald stepped outside into the light rain that had begun to fall and closed the door behind him; locking it with the duplicate key. From his boiler suit he produced a crowbar and proceeded to break the door open. That’s how our burglar got in, he thought. When he returned inside he placed the receiver back onto the cradle. Next he removed the gun from Harry’s holster and emptied the bullets into his pocket. He took a handkerchief from his other pocket and wiped Harry’s gun thoroughly. Then he picked up his gun from beside the phone, where he had placed it, and emptied those bullets into his pocket too and finished by giving that a thorough clean with his gun cleaning kit. Taking some fresh bullets from a box he had brought along Gerald placed six in Harry’s hand (if Harry had loaded his own gun his fingerprints would be on them). He placed each bullet carefully in his own gun and closed the chamber. Using the screwdriver he scraped the inside of the barrel to make any kind of ballistic comparison impossible. He rubbed the gun into both of Harry’s hands to make sure his fingerprints were all over it and then placed it in Harry’s hand as if Harry was about to shoot it. Gerald finished off by reloading Harry’s gun and placing it into his own holster. If anyone checked the gun he was wearing it wouldn’t be flagged as the murder weapon. His last task was to remove Harry’s watch, ring and wallet from his body. Picking up the files he had one last look at the scene then something struck him. On the floor next to the body were Harry’s keys. Gerald picked them up and put them into the pocket of a coat on the stand in the hall. That was the plan completed: Harry came home and found his door broken open, entered with his gun drawn and when he hadn’t located the burglar he phoned Gerald to ask for his help-and they said there was no such thing as a perfect murder.
At precisely 9:30 Gerald pulled back onto the dirt road at Callahan Point where Nick was sitting with the seat tilted back asleep. Gerald banged on the roof making Nick almost jump out of his skin.
‘Whoa, Man. There’s no need for that.’
‘Working hard I see.’
Nick slowly pulled himself out of the car and gave a yawn. Gerald threw the van keys to him and waited for him to get behind the wheel.
‘You know what to do now,’ he said. ‘Don’t let me down.’
As Nick pulled out of sight Gerald pulled a miniature flashlight from his pocket and made sure he picked up every cigarette butt that Nick had dropped. Wouldn’t want to leave any clues behind after all that planning, would we?
The route between Callahan Point and Harry’s house had been carefully chosen for the police bike that was always hidden behind the billboard waiting to catch the unsuspecting motorist who used the dark back road as a drag strip. Gerald edged the car to eighty as the billboard came into view. Just to make sure he was spotted revved it to a hundred as he shot passed. On cue the police bike pulled out behind him and the flash of lights and wail of a siren told him he should pull over. Gerald lowered the window as the officer walked up.
‘Do you know what speed you were doing back there, Sir?’ said the officer.
‘I know I was probably somewhere near ninety, but it’s an emergency.’
‘That’s what they all say, Sir.’
‘I’m Gerald McKray from the…’
’The Gerald McKray? From the security agency that broke up the drugs ring? Some of our boys worked with your team on that, but I’m afraid that you were speeding and I will have to issue you a ticket.’
‘I would gladly accept a ticket, Officer, but I have to get to my partners house. He just phoned me to say he’s been burgled and I need to get there right away.’
The officer weighed up his response. He could issue a ticket here and probably get a reprimand later from his division chief for mishandling a celebrity or he could give Gerald McKray an official escort to the crime scene. There was only one way this was going to play out and within ten minutes the police bike and Ferrari pulled up outside the Trask residence beside the swarm of police cars. The officer on the bike requested an autograph and held out his ticket pad. Gerald insisted on a ticket; assuring the officer that he had broken the law and considered it his duty to pay the fine. After Gerald signed the next ticket in the pad the officer drove away content in the knowledge that he was the only one in his division with Gerald McKray’s autograph.
Now was the time for Gerald’s true acting talent to show. The police presence would startle anyone, but Gerald knew that Jennifer, Harry’s wife, would be the one who found the body. He really felt sorry for her but it was the only way for him to make the whole thing seem real for the police and not be suspected. He approached an officer guarding the gate.
‘What’s going on?’ asked Gerald. ‘Did Harry kill the son of a bitch?’
‘You need to stay back, Sir,’ said the officer shifting sideways into Gerald’s path. Gerald side stepped to dodge the officer but he just moved to block entrance again.
‘What’s your name? I’ll have your badge,’ said Gerald. He needed to be as malicious as he could to keep with his concerned partner routine. Before the officer could answer a shout came from the door of the house. Standing in the doorway crying was Jennifer Trask. She had heard the commotion and realized that Gerald was there.
‘Please, let him up, Officer,’ she said through sobs.
‘I will have to check with the Lieutenant, Ma’am.’
Sergeant Rizzo came up behind Jennifer and gave the thumbs up to the officer.
‘You can go in now, Sir.’
‘About time too,’ said Gerald rushing up passed the dented Peugeot, coroner’s van and Harry’s car to Jennifer and cradling her in his arms.
‘It’s Harry,’ she said. ‘He’s been murdered.’
Inside the house was an abundance of activity. Police photographers snapping pictures, fingerprint officers dusting every available surface and a group of cops in suits standing around the dear deceased drinking coffee. One man stood alone in the hall staring at the coat stand seemingly hypnotized by it. He didn’t look like a cop; at least no cop Gerald had ever seen. Sergeant Rizzo took Jennifer and Gerald into the kitchen making sure he obscured the sight of the body from Jennifer as they passed the living room. Jennifer fell down into the chair at the table and drank from her cup as Gerald sat down next to her.
‘Would you like a coffee, Sir,’ asked Sergeant Rizzo pouring himself another.
‘I would like to know just what’s happening here. Harry called me to say that he had been burgled and now I find out he’s dead. This is crazy.’
‘I understand you’re upset, Mr McKray, but I must ask if you can answer a few questions for me. We have only just arrived here ourselves. We’re still processing the scene…’
‘Would you like me to get my boys down here?’ interrupted Gerald. ‘They would have been finished by now and probably on the track of Harry’s killer.’
Jennifer broke down and Gerald held her tightly as she fought back the tears.
‘I would like permission to take Mrs Trask to my apartment tonight,’ said Gerald.
‘I’ll just check with the Lieutenant.’
Sergeant Rizzo left the kitchen. Jennifer sobbed, ‘What am I going to do now? He’s dead.’
‘Don’t think about it now. I’m going to take you home where you’re going to have a hot shower and then a good nights sleep. We can deal with all this tomorrow.’
The Sergeant returned. ‘You can take Mrs Trask for now. I will need your address so we know where to contact her if the need arises.’
Gerald gave his address and then went out to the hall to get Jennifer’s coat that she had thrown on the side table. The funny little man was still staring entranced at the coat stand. Gerald’s curiosity got the better of him.
‘Excuse me. Who are you and what are you doing?’
The little man turned slightly and blinked. ‘What was that?’
‘I said who are you and what are you doing?’
‘You’re the one I’m talking too.’
‘I’m sorry, Sir. I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Lieutenant Columbo, LAPD Homicide.’
Gerald was taken aback. ‘You’re a cop?’
Columbo patted his raincoat pockets and then moved to his suit jacket pockets. He finally found his badge in his back pants pocket. He flipped it open for Gerald to see.
‘If you’re with the police why are you out here instead of investigating the crime scene in there?’
‘Something caught my eye out here, Sir. Hey, aren’t you Gerald McKray?’
‘Yes I am. What caught your eye out here?’
‘I’ve seen your picture across the table almost every morning. My wife, that’s Mrs Columbo, she loves reading about your cases over breakfast. She even keeps some cuttings of your more famous cases. Like the…’
‘What caught your eye, Lieutenant?’ said Gerald sternly.
‘Oh, well, it’s nothin’ much. You see it’s this coat here.’ Columbo patted the coat that Harry had been wearing when he came home. ‘It’s kinda damp as if Mr Trask had been wearin’ it tonight.’
Gerald was starting to lose patience with this one. At least the Sergeant didn’t speak in riddles.
‘That’s Harry’s coat so I’m assuming Harry would be wearing it.’
‘You’re missing my point, Sir. If you came home to your house and found the door broken open would you take the time to hang up your coat if there’s a chance the burglars still inside.’
That was an intelligent observation, one that Gerald had overlooked, but if he could come up with an explanation then maybe this guy would get on with his job and let them leave.
‘Maybe Harry wasn’t wearing it, Lieutenant.’
‘But its damp, Sir. Feel that, damp.’
‘I’m sure it is and I’m also sure that there is a reasonable explanation for it.’
‘I’m stumped on that one,’ said Columbo running his fingers through his already unkempt hair. ‘I can’t see a reason for Mr Trask to hang his coat up when he’s just discovered a burglary.’
Gerald picked up Jennifer’s coat from the table and handed it to Columbo.
‘Jennifer’s coat is also damp, Lieutenant. Maybe she brushed hers against Harry’s as she came in.’
‘Still doesn’t explain why Mr Trask’s coat is hangin’ there.’
‘If Harry didn’t wear his coat today and Jennifer accidentally brushed her against it when she got home then that would explain it, wouldn’t it.’
‘I guess it would. I’m sorry, Mr McKray. I seem to be making somethin’ outta nothin’ here.’
‘It looks that way. I’m taking Jennifer home with me tonight.’
‘That’s fine, Sir. If you can leave address with the Sergeant…’
‘He’s already got it, Lieutenant.’
‘Oh, erm, well sure you can go, Sir.’
Gerald put Jennifer’s coat around her and walked her down to his car at the gate. A multitude of media cameras flashed as hey got in. Then came a soft tapping on the driver’s window. Gerald lowered it to see Columbo looking apologetic.
‘I’m sorry if I’ve offended you tonight, Sir. It’s just I look at the little things that don’t make sense…’
Gerald stopped him dead. ‘I don’t want apologies, Lieutenant. I want you stop looking at all those little things and get your head into the big picture. I want this guy caught and if you don’t think you can do it then leave it to me and a team of my agents.’
‘I’ll do my best, Mr McKray.’
‘I certainly hope your best is good enough. Oh, I want a copy of the coroners report as soon as it’s ready.’
‘I’ll get it to you personally, Sir.’
‘Good. We’re leaving now.’
‘Could I just check something with you, Mr McKray? I only want your opinion on something out here that I’m finding hard to explain.’
‘Give me a minute,’ Gerald said to Jennifer. ‘I’ll try and get this over with as quickly as possible.’
Gerald followed Columbo back up to the house and stopped by Harry’s car. Columbo shrugged his shoulders as if asking Gerald to answer an unasked question.
‘I don’t possess telepathic abilities, Lieutenant. You’re going to have to tell me what is so hard to explain.’
‘It’s this car, Sir. I can’t figure out why it’s here.’
‘I would say it’s here because Harry drove home from the office,’ said Gerald as if talking to a child.
‘Perhaps I should explain what I mean. What I can’t figure is how did Mr Trask drive his car all the way up to the house? The driveway is too narrow to get two cars side by side…see what I mean? With my car and the coroners van there is no way anyone else can drive a car up to the house.’
‘I’m sorry, Lieutenant, but I have no idea what you’re saying. What makes you think there was two cars here?’
Columbo took a few steps away from the car and looked down at the flower beds that lined the drive. He was examining them so intently that Gerald found himself peering at them out of curiosity.
‘What are we looking for?’
‘Tire marks. There should be tire marks somewhere in this dirt.’
‘Why would there be tire marks in the dirt? I’m sorry, but you seem to be wasting my time here.’
‘Wait!’ said Columbo slapping his forehead. ‘My mind kinda wanders and I get caught up in my own thoughts. You see when Mr Trask got home the burglar was still here…so how did Mr Trask drive up to the house without having to drive around the burglar’s vehicle? They must have had one because from what I’ve seen there’s a lot of items been removed; that would mean probably a van or pickup.’
‘That is a very interesting observation, Lieutenant,’ said Gerald trying not to sound too surprised. ‘Maybe the burglar parked their vehicle round the back so as not to arouse suspicion from anyone driving by on the road.’
‘That must be it, Sir.’
Gerald was about to turn back to his car when Columbo continued. ‘But then why did the burglar break in through the front when they could have got in just as easily through the back?’
‘It does seem a little strange, I admit, but you can’t expect to have answers to every insignificant detail that pops up. As I said before, try and look at the bigger picture and I will try and come up with an answer to your question.’
‘I would be grateful if you could,’ said Columbo following Gerald back to his car. ‘And I’ll certainly keep you up to date on anything we find here.’
Columbo watched as Gerald roared his car out of the gate passed the heaving media crowd and around the corner out of sight.
While Jennifer showered Gerald took the opportunity to press the message delete button on his answering machine. Now he was totally in the clear. Apart from that stupid cop whining about the coat the plan was foolproof. All he had to do was sit back and watch the police chase after the phantom burglar.
Jennifer came out of the shower and walked straight to the spare bedroom. It was understandable that she didn’t want to talk after what happened. Gerald felt bad for her but it was Harry’s life or his freedom and the scales were cruelly tipped against Harry. Gerald decided that it would better to just get some sleep and work on the next part of his plan tomorrow.
Gerald left before Jennifer had woken and drove to the office. He was surprised to find Deidre sitting at her desk answering the endless phone calls from the media. She quickly dropped the phone and rushed to Gerald who hugged her tightly.
‘It’s horrible. Who would do such a thing?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know but I’m glad you’re here. Are you able to do some work today?’
‘You still want to work?’ she asked astonished that he would work the day after his partner was killed.
‘I’m going to work alright. I want every case put on hold and every available operative we have to report to the office. I’ve seen the cop who is in charge of the case and I don’t think he’ll be up to the job. From now on the only case we handle is Harry’s murder.’
‘I’ll get right on it.’
Deidre picked up her phone and began dialing like crazy. Soon the office would be full to bursting with agency operatives ready to investigate.
Gerald closed the office door and went directly to Harry’s desk. He removed the contract from the top drawer and placed it in his pocket. As he closed the drawer a familiar voice called out to him.
‘Good morning, Lieutenant. I didn’t hear you come in. Got any information for me or are you here to tell me you’ve arrested the burglar?’
‘Not yet, Sir. The burglary division has been in contact with the Trask’s insurance agents to get a list of anything that might be missing. It’s a lengthy process I’m afraid.’
‘Slow is the word I would use, Lieutenant. You’ll be pleased to hear that I’m going to be putting my entire staff on this case. Of course we will be taking a back seat to your official investigation, but it should move the inquiries along faster and take some of the pressure from your team.’
Columbo looked puzzled. ‘My team? There’s no team, Sir. We got a whole bunch of guys from homicide off with flu so I’m the only one on this case.’
‘This is not good enough, Lieutenant!’ shouted Gerald slamming his hand on the desk. ‘Do you realize how important this case is? My partner has been murdered and the homicide department is taking time off because they have the sniffles! What’s your Captains name, I want to speak with him?’
‘You can’t do that, Sir,’ said Columbo sheepishly. ‘He’s off with the flu.’
Gerald took a deep breath and smiled. ‘I’m sorry, Lieutenant. You must forgive my outburst. I know it’s not your fault, but you must see how important this case is to me.’
‘I understand, Mr McKray,’ said Columbo placing a hand on Gerald’s arm. ‘I would be grateful for any help you can give me on this one. To be honest with you I’m stumped. There’s nothing for me to go on. Whoever killed Mr Trask certainly was lucky. We didn’t find any fingerprints apart from Mr and Mrs Trask and until the boys from burglary come up with something the whole thing is at a standstill.’
‘Hopefully my operatives can find something soon then. Is there anything specific you want them to look into?’
‘It would be better if you gave them their orders. I wouldn’t know where to start.’
The intercom sounded as Deidre informed Gerald that some of his agents had turned up. Gerald thanked her and turned back to Columbo.
‘If there’s nothing else Lieutenant I need to allocate the assignments.’
‘There was one thing, Sir. I know you said not to concentrate too much time on the silly little things, but I had to return to that coat again.’
‘What is it with you and coats?’
‘It’s not really the coat this time; it’s Mr Trask’s keys.’
‘I think you’d better explain what you mean. What do the coat and the keys have in common?’
‘I thought it was kinda strange when we didn’t find Mr Trask’s keys on his body or in the house. It was driving me crazy looking for them.’
‘I take it you found them eventually?’
‘They were right there in a coat on the stand.’
‘There were quite a few coats on the stand and we found em in his brown overcoat, not the black one he wore that day. I checked with your secretary and she told me he had worn that coat, so that’s one mystery solved. But now I have another question: Why were his house keys in a coat that he hadn’t even worn?’
Gerald walked around the desk and sat down in the oversized chair. It gave him a sort of mental power having the large mahogany desk between the Lieutenant and himself. He had to think about this. It did seem strange, but if he kept avoiding answering these questions then Columbo would no doubt start coming up with his own theories…and that would never do.
‘Maybe Harry was going to use that coat tomorrow and decided to put his keys in there ready. It’s not exactly an important part of the case is it?’
Columbo frowned. ‘Like I said it’s just a little thing, but I can’t see a man coming home finding his house burglarized and then hanging up his coat and putting his keys into another coat for tomorrow. I feel like I’m missing something. Know what I mean?’
‘I think I might have an answer for you, Columbo. Harry came home and found his door broken open and came in with his gun drawn. As he performs a quick search of the house the burglar, who hasn’t had time to escape, hides. Then Harry calls me to come over and then he hangs up his coat and puts his keys in the other coat. It’s then that the burglar makes his move and in trying to escape shoots Harry.’
Columbo started nodding. ‘Do you know that sounds kinda plausible? Gee, you got a way making things sound simple. There was me making it all complicated.’
‘So is that an end to the whole coat fiasco?’
‘There’s no other explanation so I’m going to put that in my report. Thank you for your help, Mr McKray. You’ve certainly earned your reputation. I’m gonna leave you to your work. I’ll have the autopsy report to you as soon as it’s ready.’
‘Thank you, Lieutenant. I will keep you in the loop with anything important we find.’
‘Oh I meant to ask you before, Sir. Would it be possible for me to check the weapons you have here at the agency?’
‘What possible reason would you have for checking the agency’s weapons, Lieutenant?’
‘Well I believe in covering every base. It’s also a way of covering yourself, Sir.’
‘All the weapons I’ve seen your agents wearing around here made me wonder if any of your employees could have had anything against Mr Trask.’
‘That is preposterous, Lieutenant!’
‘I’m real sorry for saying that, Mr McKray, but I do have to look at every possibility and that is one of em. Surely you understand?’
‘It’s not a pleasant thought but I appreciate you’re just doing your job. I apologize, Lieutenant. Deidre will take you down to the weapons lockup and you may take whatever you want to check out.’
‘Thank you, Sir. Oh the gun you’re wearing…does that belong to the agency?’
‘Yes, it does. Harry and I were given a matching pair by the Mayor years ago when we prevented an attempt on his life. Two of a kind specially designed for us with the agency’s name on the barrel.’
‘Sure sounds like you’ve had an exciting career.’
‘It’s had its moments.’
‘Would it be possible to take that one too?’
Gerald slipped his gun from the holster and held it out to Columbo. For a moment Columbo froze staring at the gun like it was a poisonous snake.
‘I’ll send Sergeant Rizzo up to collect it in a few minutes; if that’s alright, Sir.’
‘Fine by me, Lieutenant,’ said Gerald enjoying watching the cop squirm. Looks like plan B would work out better than he had hoped.
Jennifer had spent most the day in bed. The shock of finding Harry’s body was still fresh and in the cold light of day seemed worse than the night before. It was just after six when the doorbell rang and she found the funny little cop from the house standing in the hallway with a large brown envelope in his hand.
‘Good evening, Mrs Trask. Is Mr McKray home yet? His secretary said he’d already left the office.’
‘He should be home shortly, Lieutenant. If you would like to come in and wait.’
She held the door open as Columbo shuffled in. He hovered until she asked him to take a seat.
‘Do you feel up to answering a couple of questions, Ma’am?’
Jennifer took a deep breath and smiled. ‘If I don’t do it now, Lieutenant, I never will. Please ask your questions.’
‘Thank you, Ma’am. What time exactly did you return home last night?’
‘I don’t know exactly, but I’m sure it was just after nine-thirty. My yoga class finished at nine and my cab was waiting for me when I finished…so it must have been around…nine-thirty when I…found...’
Jennifer broke down into floods of tears and Columbo looked around for some tissues. He found a box on a large cabinet in the corner of the room next to the answering machine and placed them in her lap.
‘Please take your time, Ma’am. There’s no need to rush.’
After a few more sobs Jennifer had calmed sufficiently to continue.
‘What time did your yoga class start?’
‘Seven. Am I a suspect, Lieutenant?’ Her eyes began to fill again.
‘No, Ma’am. These are just routine questions for my report, there’s no need for you to get upset. This next question may be a hard one for you to answer, but anything you may know could help us make an arrest in this case; did your husband have any enemies?’
‘Enemies? He was a private detective, Lieutenant, of course he had enemies. Over the years I’d hate to try and count the death threats he’d received.’
‘So he had been threatened before?’ Columbo pulled out his notebook and started patting his pockets. ‘I’m sorry, Ma’am, do you have a pencil?’
Before she could move the door flew open and Gerald stormed in.
‘What do you think you’re doing here, Lieutenant?’
‘I came by to see you and…’
‘And you thought you would distress Jennifer for good measure.’
‘I’m sorry, Sir. That wasn’t my intention. I was just…’
‘Jennifer please leave us. I have some business to discuss with the Lieutenant’
Jennifer was unsure of what to do. Gerald wanted her gone but it was obvious that Columbo wanted to finish his questioning.
‘I would like to ask you one last question before you leave, Ma’am. Did Mr Trask ever go to a shooting range or anything like that?’
‘He was down at the range the day before he…’ The tears started again.
‘Thank you very much, Ma’am. You can go now.’
When she had gone Gerald turned to Columbo with an angry scowl.
‘What was all that about, Columbo?’
‘It was just a few routine questions for my report. Nothing more.’
‘What did you wish to see me about?’
Columbo held out the envelope. ‘I wondered if I could get any thoughts on this, Sir.’
Gerald removed two photos from the envelope. The first was a full length shot of Harry’s body on the living room floor. He took the time to feign distress at the sight of his oldest friend lying dead where the heinous killer had left him; giving him time to analyze the picture for anything that Columbo might be talking about. As far as he could see there was no problem with the scene.
‘What exactly is the problem with this, Lieutenant?’
Columbo cleared his throat, ‘I need to remain calm while I explain my problem. You see what with the coat…’
‘Damn it, Columbo! This is the last straw. I want you out of here now and I’m going to contact your superior…when he’s over the flu to have you reprimanded.’
Columbo held up a hand. ‘Please, Sir. Just hear me out. If you don’t agree with me I’ll leave you in peace.’
With the possibility of getting rid of this nit-picking little man, Gerald was eager to listen and then throw him out. He poured himself a drink (didn’t offer one to the cop) and gulped it down in one swallow.
‘Ok, Columbo. Let’s hear it…but after this I don’t want to hear about coats or keys or any kind of useless nonsense that has nothing to do with the investigation.’
‘Well, it’s like this; earlier you said that Mr Trask must have put his keys in his coat after he had searched around for the burglar and called you, but why did he draw is gun if he thought the burglar was gone?’
This was becoming ridiculous. Silly little things that Gerald had overlooked were at most trivial in this instance and Columbo was grasping at straws to try and make a case…because he was baffled. That meant that he didn’t have any kind of idea about what really happened. He couldn’t be any luckier if he was the lead investigator himself. It was time to put this suspicion to bed once and for all.
‘It would seem you were not as pleased with my first answer as you said. I stand by my first theory though. The burglar hides, Harry does a quick scout of the house, calls me, hangs up his coat and places the keys in the other coat, then as the burglar breaks for his escape Harry draws his gun but the burglar fires first. How does that work for you?’
Columbo looked stunned. That had thrown him. Yet another simple answer that his poor stunted mind hadn’t considered. ‘I want to apologize, Mr McKray. I seem to be making a pest of myself. It’s just those little things that get at me…you know…’
Gerald’s demeanor changed in an instant. Yet again he had illustrated to Columbo that he was the mental superior and that he was ready for any of these ludicrous “little things” that came up.
‘Please don’t apologize, Lieutenant.’ Said Gerald leading Columbo to the door. ’Should any other little things come up don’t hesitate to call on me.’
‘I did find a problem with Mr Trask’s gun.’
‘What kind of problem?’
‘It looked like someone had scratched the inside of the barrel. The lab tried to get a test bullet for comparison and found the damage.’
‘I will admit that Harry wasn’t the most careful of people with his weapon; that could have happened months ago and he wouldn’t have known the difference.’
‘That’s impossible, Sir. You see when the guys at the lab fired the gun it kinda mashed the bullet up and there was no way Mr Trask could have overlooked it.’
‘We don’t exactly go onto the streets every day with all guns blazing. I repeat it could have been months before he would have fired that gun.’
‘But Mrs Trask just confirmed that he had gone to the shooting range the day before he died. Don’t you think he would notice it there?’
‘Harry didn’t necessarily use that gun. He could have rented one or used any number of other weapons.’
‘Gee, that’s true. I’ll have to look into that. Oh there was one last thing before I go. Where did you get that answering machine? Mrs Columbo has been bugging me for one of those for years.’
‘It was a gift from Midas Electronics for our security at one of their shows here in Los Angeles. They had million’s of dollars worth of technology at the show and needed to ensure its protection.’
‘How much would something like that cost? Doesn’t have to be accurate; just a general figure.’
‘I think that model is somewhere in the region of two hundred dollars.’
‘Two hundred? Seems a lot just to take messages. Did you get any messages yesterday, Sir?’
‘If you want the best you have to pay for it, Lieutenant. And no I didn’t get any messages.’
‘Just goes to show that sometimes the priciest product on the market isn’t necessarily the best.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Miss Holland, your secretary, said she phoned you last night around eight to let you know about some informant you were waiting to hear from. She said you didn’t answer and left a message. But you said you didn’t get any messages. Two questions I have to ask is: If you were home why didn’t you answer the call from your secretary and if you weren’t home how did Mr Trask call you here and tell you he’d been robbed?’
‘I always leave my answering machine on when I’m having a shower, Lieutenant. I must have been in the shower at that time and turned the machine back off when I came out accidently hitting the delete button by mistake.’
‘Yeah I guess it’s an easy thing to do. Thanks for all your help, Mr McKray.’
Gerald closed the door in Columbo’s face without another word.
The last person Gerald expected to see on his doorstep at seven the next morning was Lieutenant Columbo. He looked like he’d slept in his clothes which had been the case because he had spent all night at the morgue waiting for the autopsy report. This could only mean that the cop was scared or at least worried about his future employment and didn’t want to displease Gerald and receive an unfavorable mention to the captain, but the reality dawned on Gerald almost immediately.
‘Mornin,’ Mr McKray,’ said Columbo masking a yawn with the back of his hand.
‘What can I do for you at…?’ Gerald looked at his watch, ‘seven in the morning, Lieutenant?’
‘I’m sorry about the early hour, but you did say you wanted the autopsy report as soon as possible. I didn’t think the time of day would matter.’
‘It’s not a problem, Lieutenant. In fact I’m glad you thought to get the report too me promptly. You never know this could be the one thing that breaks the case wide open.’
Gerald took the file and offered a seat to Columbo who placed his cigar in the glass ashtray in the center of the table. He took a few minutes to peruse the details (knowing that the autopsy report would uncover nothing vital to the case at all) then slammed the file shut.
‘Then again, it could tell us absolutely nothing. Harry was shot once in the heart; nothing new to work with.’
‘You didn’t find anything strange in there, Sir? Anything you’d say didn’t quiet fit?’
‘I hope you’re not going to try and make a big deal out of something in this report. I repeat; Harry was shot once in the heart. How can you possibly find anything strange about that?’
‘If you’ll look at the bottom of page three I’ll explain.’
Gerald flipped through the pages and found the part Columbo was talking about.
’You see, Sir, the doctor found that the bullet had entered the body at a strange angle. About forty…’ Columbo checked his notebook. ‘Yeah, roughly a forty-five degree angle. That to me seems strange. Outta place.’
‘Out of place?’
’The bullet came at an upward trajectory meaning the shooter was lower than the victim at the time of the shot. That’s tells me only one thing. The person who shot Mr Trask was sitting down. And I just can’t see a burglar breaking into a house and then sittin’ around waiting for the owner. It doesn’t make sense.
‘You’re right, Lieutenant, it doesn’t make sense. But it doesn’t necessarily mean the shooter was sitting down. There are probably many reasons for the bullets angle of entry.’
‘I wish I could come up with one, Sir. If ya think you can help me out here I would be most grateful.’
‘Well…for example: If Harry went upstairs looking for the burglar and while he is on the stairs the burglar is at the bottom and he fires at Harry; that would give us an angle. Isn’t that right?’
‘That’s amazing, Sir.’
Stupid cop couldn’t think his way out of a wet paper bag. The smirk on Gerald’s face soon faded as Columbo continued.
‘The body was found in the living room not at the foot of the stairs.’
‘Couldn’t Harry have crawled into the living room…trying to reach the phone to call for help?’
‘That doesn’t work either. Mr Trask was shot through the heart; it says so in the report. He died instantly. Plus there were no marks found on the body to suggest he had taken a severe fall like that.’
‘I did say it was only an example, Lieutenant. It’s a difficult thing for me think about at the moment. Harry and I worked together for many years.’
‘And I thank you for tryin’ to help out, Mr McKray. I guess it’s just gonna’ be one of loose ends that keep naggin’ at me. Anyway, thank you for your time.’
Columbo began to rise from the table.
‘Sit down, Lieutenant.’ Said Gerald sternly, ‘let’s try and figure this out. I don’t want you leaving with a loose end nagging you.’
‘That’s very kind of you, Sir,’ said Columbo lowering himself back into his chair.
‘So he wasn’t shot on the stairs?’
‘No. Definitely not, Sir.’
‘Ok. Let’s look at this differently. Lets say Harry and the burglar were in a struggle. The burglar pushed Harry away and he falls to the ground. He shoots while he’s standing over Harry. That would give us about a forty-five degree angle.’
‘That’s true. But it didn’t happen like that. It still doesn’t fit.’
‘What’s wrong with it now?’ said Gerald trying his hardest to keep his temper in check.
‘We found Mr Trask on his on his front, Sir. Face down. The way you describe it he would have been on his back.’
‘Isn’t it possible the killer turned him over?’
‘I don’t see that happening. There’s no reason for them to do that. After shooting a man you don’t hang around at the crime scene. I had a case once where the killer wanted everyone to think that an intruder killed the victim while the rest of the group was downstairs. He left a window and door open so that when everyone heard the shot and rushed upstairs to see what happened they opened one door and the other slammed shut because of the open window. Everyone thought the killer had just run out. It struck me then that a killer wouldn’t hang around for 30 seconds giving everyone a chance to see him. That’s why I have to say no to your second theory.’
‘I can see you’re a difficult man to please, Lieutenant. What if we were to swap the killer and victim?’
‘How’d you mean?’
‘Instead of the burglar pushing Harry what if Harry pushed the burglar. The burglar falls back and fires up at Harry. That way you get the angle, the body’s position and an answer to your loose end. All tied up with a nice bow.’
‘Yeah. That works. Gee I wish I had a mind like yours. I bet you’re good at solving mystery books. I can’t do em. Too many suspects, motives and blue herrings.’
‘Red herrings. That’s what false clues in mystery stories are called. No I don’t partake in that particular genre. I see enough crime with my work without reading about it in my recreation time.’
‘Mrs Columbo watches all these TV shows about cops and murderers. She can normally pick out the culprit in the opening ten minutes. I always say she should have been the cop and I should stay home with the dog.’
‘I’m sure she’s indispensible, Lieutenant. If there’s nothing else I have to organize Harry’s funeral today. Jennifer said she couldn’t face it so I’ve offered to take care of it. I’ll be at the Havilland/Prince funeral home this morning but if anything comes up you can reach me on my cell phone or at the office this afternoon.’
‘Mrs Trask is very lucky to have you standing by her at this time. I can see ya gotta lot on, so I’ll leave you to get on with it all. Thanks again for your help.’
‘Good bye, Lieutenant.’
Columbo was about to get up when something seemed to occur to him.
‘Oh, there was something I wanted ask you, if you don’t mind me taking a few more minutes of your time.’
‘Do you still plan to leave the agency now Mr Trask is dead? I saw his interview on Crime Alert and just wondered if his death would change your plans.’
‘Yes it has changed my plans. I was never leaving for good. There was always an understanding that I would return in a few months or a year. Now it looks like I’ll be staying on. Why do ask?’
‘I spoke to your attorney and he said Mr Trask had a contract drawn up for you to sign over your half of the agency for nothing; I couldn’t figure out why you would just give it away instead of selling it to Mr Trask.’
‘As I said, Lieutenant, I was always planning to come back. It was a simple contract that would give Harry the authority to act on my behalf while I was gone.’
‘I thought it would be something like that. Well, I better check in with the burglary boys and see if they’ve made any headway.’
Gerald walked Columbo to the door.
‘Please let me know if anything has changed and I’ll get onto my operatives.’
‘You betcha,’ said Columbo walking off down the hall whistling the tune to This Old Man. Gerald closed the door and breathed a sigh of relief. This guy was starting to bug him. Suddenly there was a sharp knock on the door. Slowly Gerald opened it and saw the apologetic face of Columbo staring back at him.
‘Excuse me, Sir. Just one more thing.’
Gerald took a deep breath to calm the fury that was building inside him. ‘What is it this time?’
‘Forgot my cigar.’
Organizing Harry’s funeral didn’t take as long as expected. Gerald had been taken to the plush offices of Eric Prince, the surviving partner and chief mortician of the Havilland/Prince funeral home. It was simplest to just order the most expensive of everything and get back to investigating Harry’s murder.
When he got back to his own offices Deidre informed him that Lieutenant Columbo had been waiting in his office for nearly forty minutes to see him. Another deep breath. Gerald could take the cop in small doses but this was getting beyond a joke. With a broad smile and a confident step he walked into the office and saw Columbo sitting behind his desk tapping his fingers on a briefcase staring off into space. Gerald coughed a few times to get Columbo’s attention.
‘Gee, I’m sorry, Mr McKray. My mind was wondering again.’
‘To what do I owe the pleasure this time?’
‘Well, there’s something’ bothering me. Nothing special. I just thought I’d pass it around a little to see if you could help. I hope you don’t mind.’
‘Not at all. Would you like a coffee before we start?’
‘Miss Holland was kind enough to make me one already. Better than the stuff we have down at the station.’
‘Glad to hear it. What’s on your mind, Lieutenant?’
‘Well…Like I said it’s nothing special. It’s just one of those loose ends I like to tie up.’
‘Yes, you have mentioned those on a couple of occasions now. What loose end is it this time?’
Columbo scratched his head, ‘it’s this briefcase.’
‘Briefcase? What about it?’
‘Mr Trask’s briefcase was tampered with. Someone had been tryin’ ta jimmy the lock. You see the scratches here and here?’
Columbo indicated the area around the latches.
‘What seems so strange about that? To get into a locked briefcase you would have to force the lock in order to open it. Wouldn’t you agree, Lieutenant?’
‘Yes I would, sir. I would certainly agree…but that’s what bothers me.’
‘I’m afraid I don’t follow you.’
’We both agree that someone wanting to open a locked briefcase would have to force open the lock. And of course that stands to reason. But what strikes me as odd is the fact that Mr Trask’s briefcase dials were set into the unlocked position. All the burglar has to do is press the buttons on each lock and they would have sprung open. This is exactly as we found it at the crime scene. I don’t see why they needed to force the lock. Can you see any reason for that, Mr McKray?
Gerald stood up and paced the room trying to think of an answer that would deter this irritating little man. His mind was racing. How did he forget to turn the dials after locking the latches again? It was a stupid mistake that he needed to be resolved or the cop would hound him forever more.
‘Drugs!’ said Gerald triumphantly.
‘Drugs?’ said Columbo surprised at the answer.
‘Yes. It’s plain to see, Lieutenant. I have dealt with many junkies in my time and I will lay ten-to-one odds that drugs are behind this. That could also be the answer to why the burglars parked the van around the back of the house and broke in through the front.’
‘I’m sorry, sir. I don’t see what that has to do with the briefcase.’
‘Everything, Lieutenant. Think of it this way. If it was a junkie that burgled Harry’s place they could have already been on something. In that kind of situation I would guess it would be difficult enough to concentrate on the matters at hand. But being high throws all the normal rules of logic and reason out of the window. They probably saw the briefcase expected it had something of value in there and tried their hardest to get into it. The matter of the dials already being set to open probably didn’t even occur to our burglar.’
Columbo seemed to be catching on to what Gerald was saying. ‘I never thought of it like that, sir. Wow. You certainly have earned your reputation I can see that. There is still no evidence to support any connections to drugs, but I will write that down.’
Before Columbo can even look for his pencil Gerald handed him a pen from the desk.
‘Gee, thank you, Mr McKray. My wife gives me a fresh pencil every morning and before I even get to the station it’s gone. I think my dog must eat em.’
‘I’m sure it’s a real problem, Lieutenant.’
This recent development provoked another deep thought process that left Gerald staring at that far off look in Columbo’s eyes. He hadn’t written anything down or found the voice to argue against it as was his custom. After a while in silence Gerald thought it was time to bring the cop back into the room.
‘If that’s all, Lieutenant, I do have plenty work on here.’
‘Oh, yes, sir. That’s all I wanted to know. Thank ya, Mr McKray. You’ve been most helpful.’
As he was halfway to the door Columbo suddenly stopped and put a hand to his head.
‘Oh there was just one thing. Your secretary said that Mr Trask took some files home to work on.’
‘What’s that got to do with anything?’
’We couldn’t find em. We looked all over the house. Came up empty handed.’
‘Did you check his car?’
‘Yes, Sir. We did. Nothin’.
‘Maybe they were in the briefcase and our Burglar took them.’
‘Yeah. I thoughta’ that, Sir.’
Columbo started for the door and again stopped mid step. He turned to Gerald with a wry smile.
‘But what would an average junkie burglar want with those files?’
Before Gerald could offer any excuses Columbo left the office saying goodbye to Deirdre as he passed. He was starting to feel a little concerned with the way Columbo’s investigation was going. There was only one thing he could think to do. He buzzed Deirdre.
‘Get me everything we’ve got on Lieutenant Columbo.’
A couple of hours reading were enough to prove that Lieutenant Columbo was anything but slow and dim-witted as he appeared. The file contained details of cases throughout his career; cases that at first appeared perfect but had been torn apart by the cops consistent irritating questions. Gerald could see the comparison in this case and wanted to enforce some sort of damage limitation on himself. Maybe it was time to make ‘friends’ with this tiresome little man. He reached for the phone only to hear the hurried voice of Columbo from the outer office.
‘I’m sorry to bother you again, Sir. But we may have got a lead on the burglar.’
‘The guy’s down in the robbery division were doing the rounds of the pawnshops and got a hit on a couple of items that belonged to Mr Trask.’
‘Did they get a description of the person who sold the items?’
‘Yeah, five store owners said he was around his late twenties/early thirties with wavy blonde hair. It’s not perfect, but it’s something to work with. I got a copy of the report here for you, Sir.’
‘Thank you, Lieutenant. Let’s hope we can find this guy and bring him to justice.’
Gerald’s cell phone began to ring and with a swift movement he had picked it up and pressed the call ignore button. It was Nick calling and this wasn’t the time to chat with him. Deidre buzzed the intercom.
‘There’s a man on the phone that wants to speak with you, but won’t give his name.’
Gerald knew instinctively that this would be Nick trying on the landline. He couldn’t pick a more severe time to call and Gerald didn’t want Columbo listening in.
‘Tell him I’m busy at the moment and to call back later.’
‘Do you think that’s wise, Mr McKray?’ said Columbo. ‘This guy may have some information that could help in the investigation.’
‘You’re right, Lieutenant. Put him through Deirdre.’
When Nick’s voice came on the line Gerald felt his guts twist. He was talking to his accomplice with the cop standing just a few feet away.
‘You didn’t say anything about murder, man. I didn’t sign up for any of this. Just give me my money and I’ll disappear from LA…’
‘I’m sorry but we are not taking any jobs at the moment. If you could call back at a later date and I’m sure we will be able to help you. Thank you.’
Gerald put the phone down and shrugged at Columbo.
‘Last thing I need is a divorce case right now. I thank you again for the information, Lieutenant. I will pass it out to my operatives and hope they can find something.’
‘Hope it helps, Sir. I’ll get out of your hair now…’
‘There is one thing, Lieutenant. I was reading a file on you.’
‘On me?’ Columbo was shocked.
‘You would be surprised at the information we pick up on different people in our investigations. I didn’t realize that you arrested First Secretary Hassan Salah for the Saurian legation murder. Harry and I had a team of operatives working with the King’s personal security. I also see you arrested Mr Brimmer for the murder of Lenore Kennicut. When he went away we took most of his agents on here. Dr’s Fleming and Mason, even Wade Anders from Crime Alert; You’ve never missed have you, Columbo?’
‘Not yet, Sir.’
‘There’s always a first time for everything.’
‘I don’t want you to worry, Mr McKray; I’ll do my best to catch the person who killed Mr Trask. That’s a promise.’
Columbo left that sinister statement hanging as he walked out of the office.
Gerald walked to the Chop Shop and dialed Nick from the payphone. He answered on the first ring. He sounded scared; good that would make him a little more cooperative.
‘I want my money, man. I need to get away tonight. Have you seen the description the police have put out for the burglar? They think I killed Harry and you know I didn’t. You got to get me out of this one.’
‘I’ve got a plan to get you off but we’ll need to meet.’
‘I’d swim with alligators and turn queer if you could save my ass.’
‘You won’t need to do any as drastic as that. Meet me at Callahan Point at eight tonight and I’ll give you your money and a new passport. Once you’re out of the country you don’t try to contact me again…understand?’
‘Yeah, sure, whatever you say.’
‘See you at eight.’
Gerald pulled his car into a small nest of trees at the opening of the dirt road that led to Callahan Point. He had watched Nick pull his car onto the dirt road and drive on up. Gerald slowly walked through the trees making the minimum amount of noise he could. He watched Nick for a while making sure he was alone and then walked to the edge of the trees and called out.
‘Nick, come here quickly.’
Nick almost jumped out of his skin. His first instinct was to jump in the car and race off, but soon realized that it was Gerald.
‘What you doing in there?’ he asked walking over to the trees.
‘I’m being careful. I’m sorry I got you mixed up in this. It wasn’t my intention to kill Harry; all I wanted to do was frighten him and the gun went off by accident.’
‘That’s bull. They’ve been saying that whoever burgled the house killed him. You burgled the house but made me pawn the stuff so the police would finger me for it. It was a good plan but if you don’t give me some good money to leave then I’m going to the pigs squeelin.’
‘How’s this?’ said Gerald handing Nick a paper bag full of cash. ‘I told you I wouldn’t let you down, Nick. The passport is there too. Get out of the country as quickly as you can…what was that?’
Gerald turned to look down the dirt road for whatever had startled him. Nick turned to look and in a split second Gerald had thrust a knife into Nick’s back. It had pierced his heart and he was dead almost instantly. Gerald took Harry’s wallet that he had kept from the burglary, and placed it in Nick’s back pocket. He took Nick’s wallet and cell phone; picked up the paper bag and walked back through the trees to his car. This was always going to happen and it was simple to explain it away to himself; one more drug pusher off the street. Gerald got into his car and drove to the nearest pier. He threw the wallet and cell phone into the water. That’ll stump the cop.
Columbo parked at the opening of the dirt road and eased himself out of his ancient Peugeot. He had gone to bed an hour before he got the call about a body at Callahan Point. Lurching like something seen in Alex Brady’s very first picture Zombie Night, Columbo ambled up to Sergeant Rizzo who was waiting at the crime scene tape.
‘Sorry to call you out so late, Lieutenant, but you did say to contact you if anyone turned matching the description we got off the pawnshop owners.’
‘That’s ok, Rizz,’ Said Columbo stretching out his arms. ‘I don’t need as much beauty sleep as some people might think. What have we got?’
Sergeant Rizzo led Columbo up the dirt road walking on the tarpaulin the police had laid down to the clearing where photographers were busy snapping shots of the scene. All the way up Columbo had his eyes on the ground looking from side to side. Rizzo noticed but realized a long time ago that it was useless questioning anything Columbo did; he had his methods and they always seemed to work. They stopped at the victim’s car.
‘Where’s the body?’
‘Over here, Lieutenant,’ said Rizzo pointing at the dark cluster of trees.
‘What’s he doing all the way over there?’
Again Columbo scanned the ground following the footprints of the victim. He stopped where the body lay on its side; a small pool of blood around the torso.
‘Has anyone moved him?’
‘This is how he was found. Sometimes kids use this place as a make out spot. Two sixteen year olds reported it around ten thirty and they weren’t up here for the view.’
‘Me and Mrs Columbo used to meet at a place exactly like this when we…that’s a story for another time. Any ID on him?’
‘Nothing, Lieutenant. Might have been a robbery gone bad. There were no valuables found on the body. But we did find this.’
Sergeant Rizzo held out the wallet with the initials HT in gold lettering on the front. Columbo flipped it open and looked inside. It was empty apart from a business card for the Trask and McKray securities agency.
‘I’m betting this is the guy we’ve been looking for. Get a picture of him and show it to the shop owners.’
As Columbo was about to examine the body he stopped.
‘Doesn’t something seem wrong here?’
‘Like what, Lieutenant?’
‘There are no footprints near the body.’
Sergeant Rizzo looked at the surrounding area.
‘You’re right. How could someone kill him at such close range but not leave any footprints?’
‘Another question: Why did the victim turn his back on the killer?’
‘Yeah, he was stabbed in the back. That is strange.’
‘The killer was standing in the tree’s that’s why the body is so far from the car. I think this guy knew his killer. A mugger wouldn’t hang around out here to mug somebody; it’s too far from any main road. He planned to meet someone and that someone killed him. If they were really after valuables why leave that mustang here when it could fetch a good price.’
‘There goes my robber theory,’ said Sergeant Rizzo.
‘There’s only one set of fresh tire tracks coming up here so whoever killed him didn’t want to leave any footprints or tire tracks and that proves it was planned.’
‘You’re good, Lieutenant.’
This was the call that Gerald had been waiting for. It would mean that once and for all Columbo would lay off the stupid questions and actually start working with real evidence.
‘We’ve done it, Sir. We got a positive identification on the guy who pawned all the items from the burglary. Have you ever heard the name Nick Bentine?’
‘Is that who it is? I’m sure he’s in our files here somewhere; something to do with drugs I think.’
‘That would be him. Small time drug pusher with a couple of convictions for burglary.’
‘Can I sit in on the questioning, Lieutenant?’
‘There won’t be any questioning, Sir.’
‘What do you mean? You said he’s been identified as the burglar, what more do you want?’
‘Can’t question a corpse, Mr McKray.’
‘Afraid so. He was murdered last night out at Callahan Point. Looked like a mugging.’
’Looked like a mugging?’
‘Someone went to great lengths to make it look like that, but he planned to meet his killer up there. I think it was his accomplice.’
Gerald didn’t want to know how Columbo had come to that conclusion he just wanted to get the cop off the phone and out of his life.
‘Oh yeah, almost forgot. I’ll be bringing back the weapons for the agency about seven-thirty, all clean there.’
‘I’m relieved to hear it. I’ll see you this evening then…’
Gerald placed the receiver back and leaned back in his chair. What was it going to take to get him of his back?
Sergeant Rizzo carried the box of weapons into Gerald’s office followed by Columbo who was holding Gerald’s gun at arm’s length as if it was about to bite him. Rizzo placed the box on the desk as Columbo slowly lowered the gun down next to it.
‘A cop of your experience shouldn’t be anxious around guns, Lieutenant. How many criminals have you shot exactly?’
Columbo looked sheepish.
‘I don’t carry a gun, Sir.’ He turned to Sergeant Rizzo. ‘That stays within these walls, Sergeant.’
‘Didn’t hear a thing, Lieutenant.’
‘That’s a little unorthodox, isn’t it? A homicide detective that doesn’t carry a gun? What about the kind of cases you investigate? What would you do if a perp pulled one on you?’
‘I’ve never had need for one. Almost every case I’ve been involved in has ended amicably. Some of the people I arrest are good people who got caught up in a bad situation through no fault of their own. Sometimes they see murder as the only way out. It’s kinda mutual respect.’
‘I wouldn’t set foot out of this building without a gun when I’m on a job. You never know when some lunatic is lurking around waiting to blow a random person away.’
‘I can see what you mean, but it didn’t do Mr Trask any good; having a gun I mean. Oh that reminds me, what time does Mrs Trask get back from her yoga? That’s if she went today.’
‘I insisted she go to take her mind off of Harry’s death. Why did you want to see her?’
‘Remember when I said that Mr Trask’s gun barrel had been damaged making ballistic comparison impossible? The guys at the lab say they can rebuild the inside with acid’s or alkali’s or somethin’ like that. It was all technical the way they described it, but it sounds promising. We’ve already returned Mr Trask’s gun to his home and I need Mrs Trask’s permission to go and get it back out again.’
‘Do you have to do it tonight?’
‘Sooner the better.’
‘What do you hope to accomplish with this, Lieutenant?’
‘Maybe nothin’, Sir. Maybe we hit pay dirt and break the case. As you said the other day; I’m very thorough in my investigations.’
‘And I respect you in that, Lieutenant. Jennifer’s class finishes at nine, but do you think it’s wise to take her back there? I’m not sure she’s ready to face it just yet.’
‘I’m sure she won’t mind if it means the arrest of her husband’s murderer.’
‘I still don’t see how it could help you but anything is worth a try.’
‘Where is her class held? I’ll pick her up and take her back to your apartment when we’ve finished.’
‘Her class is held in a small studio on Wilshire; Moods I think the name is.’
‘Thank you, Sir,’ said Columbo turning for the door. ‘Let’s hope this leads somewhere.’
Gerald couldn’t waste any time. He had to get that gun!
Gerald left his car in the parking lot a few blocks down the street from Harry’s house. He hadn’t come this far to mess it all up now by having his car spotted by inquisitive neighbors. He walked up the street wearing his best fedora and sunglasses endeavoring to hide his identity from all around. Luckily he still had the keys he had made on the day of the murder. Gerald walked around the back of the house pulling on a pair of leather gloves and unlocked to kitchen door. A search of the first floor didn’t reveal the gun so he accented the stairs to the bedrooms. Opening the bedroom closet he saw the gun box where Harry always kept his weapon when it wasn’t in use. As he reached for the box he heard voices from downstairs. It was Columbo!
‘I didn’t mean for you to cut your class short, Ma’am. This could have waited until you were finished.’
‘You said it would help your investigation and that means more to me than some stupid yoga class. It’s upstairs in the closet, Lieutenant. Would you like me to get it for you?’
‘If you would, Ma’am.’
Jennifer rushed up the stairs and into the bedroom. She opened the closet and took the gun box from the shelf closing the door again. Gerald moved from behind the rack of clothing and breathed a sigh of relief. He had managed to get the gun before Jennifer had taken the box. Dumb cop was about to shoot himself in the foot.
‘Thank you, Ma’am. I’m sure this will help a great deal. Can I take you back to Mr Mckray’s?’
‘Thank you, Lieutenant.’
Gerald heard the door close and lock. He waited for a few minutes before leaving the house and walking back to the parking lot. His only task now was to find the nearest pier and toss that damn gun as far into the ocean as he could.
When he finally got home Jennifer was curled up on the couch with a large brandy. She recounted the whole story about Columbo coming to her yoga class and taking her to the house to collect the gun. Gerald exhibited great interest, saying that he hoped it would lead to the end of the case and finally put Harry’s killer behind bars. He poured himself a generous scotch and sat beside her with a contented smile on his face. It was almost over. He could once again live his life free from Harry’s blackmail.
‘Oh and Deidre called earlier to say they want to do an interview with you on Crime Alert. They want to help as much as they can.’
It was almost like poetic justice.
Many people at the studio had given Gerald their sympathies saying that they were sorry Harry had met such a vicious end. He took the words as anyone would have expected; with a somber expression and a heartfelt thank you. On the inside he just didn’t care. Every word they uttered got on his nerves, but soon it would be over and he could finally leave these people behind and never have to speak with them again. As he waited in the green room for his call to the set he practiced his distressed voice. He wouldn’t over do it, but a little falter ever now and then would melt the hearts of the viewing public.
‘I heard you would be here, Mr McKray,’ said the voice that was becoming a hindrance to his day to day existence.
‘What are you doing here, Lieutenant?’
‘I came to watch your interview, Sir.’
‘You could have watched that at home.’
‘I also wanted to check something with you, if you don’t mind.’
‘I’m about to go on live television and talk about my partners brutal murder. You pick your moments, Lieutenant.’
‘I promise to make it as quick as possible, Sir. I checked with the phone company about the call you said Mr Trask made to you…’
‘Why would you do that? I told you Harry called me. Did you think I was lying?’
’You’ll be happy to hear that they confirmed you took the call, but it also threw up an interesting question. You see, I also checked the call from Miss Holland and was surprised to find that they confirmed you took that call too. When I asked about answering machines they said it was as good as a person picking up the phone. It would still show that the call was answered even if no one was there to take it. That kinda breaks your alibi. You could have called yourself from Mr Trask’s house and make it look like it came from him.’
‘Are you saying you think I killed Harry?’
‘I’m saying it’s a possibility, Sir.’
Instead of the usual fury that Gerald had shown on many occasions he surprised Columbo by giving a satisfied grin. Reaching into his pocket Gerald pulled out a neatly folded piece of paper.
‘Read this, Lieutenant,’ he said handing the paper to Columbo. ‘Close, but no cigar. That is a speeding ticket I got on the way to Harry’s house after I spoke to him on the phone. Check with the officer who wrote it out; he gave me an escort the rest of the way.’
‘I’m sorry, Mr McKray. I still think you had something to do with it.’
‘That’s the theory you’ve been working on from the start, isn’t it? You suspected me from the beginning? Good luck trying to prove anything.’
A little bald head popped around the door. ‘Two minutes, Mr McKray.’
‘If you’ll excuse me, Lieutenant, I have a murderer to catch.’
‘Me Too,’ said Columbo as Gerald left the room.
‘…And all of us here at Crime Alert wish to offer our deepest sympathies to you and Mrs Trask,’ said Vivienne Corbin turning back to the camera. ‘We have another special guest on the show tonight right after this commercial break.’
Once the director called the all clear Gerald stopped smiling and turned to Vivienne. She was surrounded in seconds by make up girls all dabbing her face with pads or fluffing her hair.
‘Who is this special guest?’
‘You’ll see in five minutes,’ she said curtly.
The call came that they were coming back on the air and the make up girls disappeared as quickly as they had arrived. Vivienne gave a beaming smile as the red light appeared on the camera.
‘Welcome back. On the show now we have the detective in charge of the Harry Trask murder investigation, Lieutenant Columbo.’
Columbo stepped onto the stage as if it were quicksand. His nerves were getting to him and Gerald could see that this was going to be a breeze. Columbo sat down on the couch and stared at the camera like a deer stares at oncoming headlights. Vivienne continued.
‘Welcome to the show, Lieutenant.’
‘Ah…thank you, Ma’am.’
‘How is your investigation going, Lieutenant?’
‘Ah…it’s progressing slowly, but, ah…we’re hoping to make an arrest soon.’
‘So you have a suspect?’ said Vivienne excitedly.
‘Ah…yes. There is a suspect that I wish to question.’
‘Tell us about this suspect, Lieutenant,’ said Gerald enjoying watching Columbo squirm on the couch. Too his astonishment Columbo stopped fidgeting and turned to face him.
‘If that’s what you really want, Mr Mckray. I don’t think Mr Trask was burgled. I think it was made to look like that by the person who killed him.’
‘Who do you think killed him?’ asked Gerald.
‘I think it was you, Sir. I think you killed him.’
‘You do appreciate that I have millions of witnesses to what you just said. You just made the biggest mistake of your career.’
‘Do you really think Gerald killed him?’ asked Vivienne.
‘Yes, Ma’am. Mr McKray planned the whole thing to look like a burglary gone wrong. He wanted it to seem as though Mr Trask caught a burglar in his house and in the attempt to escape the burglar shot Mr Trask.’
‘I suppose you can prove these wild allegations, Lieutenant?’ said Gerald harshly.
‘I have a few last things I want to ask you.’
‘You can talk to my lawyer, Columbo.’
‘I’ll make a deal with you, Sir. If you can give me a satisfactory answer to these questions you’ll never hear from me again. Is it a deal?’
‘It’s a deal worth making if it means I don’t have to see you again. Ask your questions.’
Columbo pulled a cell phone from his pocket and held it up for everyone to see.
‘This is a cell phone we found in the apartment of Nick Bentine; he was a suspect in the burglary at the Trask house. Nick Bentine was found dead two nights ago up at Callahan Point. I figure the person who killed him must have been his accomplice. I spoke to some of his friends and they said he had bought a new phone the day before he died and so I had our lab check this one out. There were plenty of numbers saved onto the phones contacts and one stood out. Ah…Sergeant!’
Sergeant Rizzo walked quickly onto the stage, pressed a few buttons and walked off again. Columbo pressed one button and suddenly a loud ringing could be heard throughout the studio. All eyes turned to Gerald who was frozen into place.
‘Are you going to answer that, Sir?’
Gerald removed his cell phone from his pocket and pressed a button to stop the ringing. He placed it back in his jacket and smiled.
‘What does that prove?’
‘That links you to Nick Bentine. How else would he have your number if you didn’t give it to him?’
‘When you found Nick’s body did you find anything objects on it?’
‘We found Mr Trask’s wallet.’
‘Was there anything in the wallet?’
‘Yeah, we found…’
Columbo stopped midsentence as the answer finally dawned on him.
‘You found a business card with the numbers of the office and our cells printed on it. That would be how he got my number.’
‘But why did he call you?’
‘He called to warn me not to continue an investigation Harry was working on. So even if Harry’s murder was planned as you think, then it was Nick Bentine that planned it.’
‘He had also received some calls from a bar called the Chop Shop. I asked the bartender there if he had ever seen you. He remembered someone who looked like you meeting up with someone who looked like Nick Bentine, but couldn’t be sure.’
‘If he couldn’t be sure then that puts an end to that.’
‘Then I have these,’ said Columbo pulling a set of keys from his raincoat. ‘These are Mr Trask’s keys. I asked for them to be fingerprinted along with everything else and they came back with a rouge print. Can you explain that, Sir?’
‘I handled Harry’s keys on many occasions. In fact he even asked me to fetch them from his office on the day he died. Ask Deidre.’
‘The rouge print wasn’t yours, Mr McKray. The print came back as a Jerry Letts, a small time hustler who now works at a key cutting cubicle down the street from where you and Mr Trask ate that day. I showed him your picture and he remembered you having some keys cut. It had to be Mr Trask’s keys or his prints wouldn’t have been on them. So my question would be: Why did you have duplicates made of Mr Trask’s keys?’
‘Harry had been planning on taking Jennifer away for a short holiday and wanted me to look after the house while they were gone. He said I should have my own set of keys cut for the purpose. Does that answer your question?’
‘Had Mr Trask booked any tickets for the trip?’
‘Not yet. He was going to do it the day after he died. This has gone on long enough, Columbo. If you have no proof, then leave me alone.’
‘I can prove you killed Mr Trask. I had those little things. Things that added up to a suspicion, but not any hard evidence. I had been going around in circles for days tryin’ to find that one mistake that would prove you did it, but I couldn’t find one.’
‘You said you have proof, but then say you couldn’t find any proof. I’ve listened to this because I thought you might be going somewhere, but I think you’re fishing for answers that you’re never going to get.’
‘I got the answer. I got it right here in my pocket. You see, we managed to match two bullets a weapon.’
‘Wait a minute. You say you think I killed Harry, but do you think I would have been stupid enough not to discard the murder weapon?’
’Oh, I think the murder weapon is long gone now. I could never have proved that the weapon we found in Mr Trask’s hand was the murder weapon. I said we matched two bullets to a gun not thee gun.’
‘What are you up to?’
‘I had to move your hand, Mr McKray. I couldn’t give you time to think about what you were doing and that’s why I took Mrs Trask from her yoga class the other night; and that’s why I told ya we could rebuild the barrel of Mr Trask’s gun. I didn’t know if you would fall for it, but you were in such a panic you didn’t think. All you could do was think about getting that gun away from the house. You replaced your gun with Mr Trask’s, but forgot to damage the barrel in yours.’
‘That doesn’t prove a thing. You could have given Jennifer back the wrong gun when you returned it to her. It’s all a set up.’
‘Only you could swap those guns. You’ve already told me that there were only two like those ever made with the name of the agency on the barrel, so if you would show me your gun like this we can clear it all up.’
‘I lost it and without it you can’t prove a thing.’
‘These two bullets are all the proof I need. The bullet in this bag is one I had test fired from the gun I got from Mrs Trask last night; the bullet in this bag is the one I had test fried from the gun I took from you at your office with the agency’s other weapons. They both match. So my final question has to be: How did your gun get into gun box of Mr Trask after I had given it back to you? The only way that would explain it is if you swapped them and the only reason you would need to do that is to stop me discovering that you used your gun to kill him and swapped them at the crime scene.’
The situation suddenly dawned on Gerald. His eyes were wide with fright as he struggled for and answer. It was the first time he had ever been at a loss for words. It was over and he knew it. He gently lowered his head into his hands as Sergeant Rizzo placed a hand on his shoulder.
The director made some hand signals which Vivienne obviously understood. There had been so much happening that everyone had completely forgotten they were on live television.
‘We thank you for joining us tonight and hope to have you with us again next week. Remember, stay safe.’
Columbo had walked Gerald to the squad car and watched as he was driven away. As he lit his cigar Vivienne Corbin rushed up to him out of breath.
‘Lieutenant? The switchboard has been lit up like a Christmas tree since we went off air. You went down very well with the audience. Have you ever considered working on television?’
‘Me? No, Ma’am, I couldn’t do that. I enjoy my work too much.’
‘If ever you change your mind you know where to find us.’
As Columbo was about to walk away Vivienne called out. ‘One last thing, Lieutenant. What made you first suspect Gerald McKray?’
‘Well, Ma’am, it all started with a damp coat…’