This is the city. Los Angeles. A big city, a place with professional sports teams. Entertainment. Restaurants.
A place for crime. Sometimes for murder.
It’s my job to stop it. My name's Friday. I carry a badge.
Thursday, June 24, 3:59 PM.
“Hot out.” My partner, Officer Bill Gannon.
“Don’t remember it being this hot since…”
“Last June, maybe.”
“Yeah. Last June.”
We were at the Keenan house. A nice suburban home on a nice suburban street. Not too fancy, just comfortable. What was inside wasn’t so nice.
"I don't know what more you want from me!"
The deceased’s husband, Larry, an average looking joe, sat at the kitchen table. He was sweating, a lot, maybe from the heat, maybe from something else.
“What we want is the truth, Keenan,” Bill was saying. “Like why you killed her.”
“But I didn’t! I didn’t know she was dead until the police told me! I wasn't here!”
My partner shook his head in disgust and turned away to speak to me. He made a face. “Lousy bum. Lousy story.”
“Bill, you ever know him to commit a crime before?"
“Wouldn't know. We didn't socialize. My wife and I didn’t know them. They were just the people down the street. Maybe I saw Doris in the driveway once or twice to wave at.”
“But my wife’s nervous that there’s someone in the neighborhood attacking housewives. So I want this wrapped up, for her sake.”
“Can't blame her. Women get nervous about these things."
"Don’t I know it. Want to take him downtown?”
We both turned. “Yes?”
There was a guy standing in the doorway, a short, rumpled sort of fellow, wearing a raincoat that had seen better days. It had to be hot on a day like this. “Can I help you?”
“Yes, sorry to bother you like this – I’m looking for a…” He consulted a piece of paper that was as rumpled as he was. “A…Sergeant Friday?”
“That’s me.” I stepped forward. “And you?”
“Oh, sorry.” He tapped himself on the forehead like he was jogging his memory and smiled apologetically. “Lt. Columbo. Homicide." He flashed his ID. "I’m here about the murder.”
Bill stepped up too. “Bill Gannon.”
Columbo nodded. “Officer Gannon. Right. You took the initial call?”
They shook hands. I did the same. His grip was firm.
“Anyway,” said Columbo, ducking his head in a deferential way. “I’m from Homicide, like I said, and – not that I want to get in your way, because I’m sure you’ve got everything under control—“
“We try, Lieutenant.”
“Right. It’s just, I thought I could lend a hand, because when I heard about the case there were a coupla things about it jumped out at me that seemed, you know, a little confusing. They bothered me.”
“Oh?” Bill folded his arms. “How so?”
“I should say, they're probably just confusing to me, because I get these ideas in my head sometimes, and I just can’t get rid of them. Even if they don’t mean anything. You know what I mean.”
“Not sure I do, but I’m happy to listen.” I nodded. “Welcome, Lieutenant. Glad to have the help.”
“Gee, that’s real nice of you, Sergeant.” He inclined his head at Bill. “You too, officer.”
"Mr. Keenan,” Columbo said. He was sitting across from the husband at the kitchen table. “I know these fine police officers have asked you a bunch of questions already, but if you wouldn't mind, I'd really like you tell it to me again."
Keenan slammed his hand on the table. "Why can't you just ask them?"
Lieutenant Columbo looked sympathetic. "I know, I know. It's frustrating. It's just sometimes I need to hear things from the horse's mouth, if you don’t mind me using that expression. It would help find out what really happened."
"I told those other two what happened – I don't know what happened to my wife! I wasn't there!" He wiped a hand over his face. "And I think I should wait for my lawyer."
"Well sure, sure, if that's what you want." Columbo shrugged. "It's just, if you don't mind my saying, sometimes I have a different take on things. I might ask you a different question than the other police officers have asked. Me, I'm a little strange. My wife tells me that all the time. Look, Mr. Keenan. I think we might be able to clear this up faster if we talk."
"Faster?" Bill said, gritting his teeth. "Is he saying we don't know what we're doing?"
"Hold on, Bill. Let him interview the guy."
"All right." Keenan shook his head. "Anything that will get this over with."
"Thanks. I’ve been in the bedroom. I have to look at the crime scene, you know. Your wife…she was a beautiful woman."
"Yes, she was."
"The kind of woman who gets a lot of attention from other men, I'd guess."
Keenan raised his head. "I know what you're thinking. What was a woman as attractive as Doris doing with a guy like me?" He gestured to his balding head, his pot belly.
"Oh, I don’t know, sir. My wife's very attractive, and – well, I know you'll find this hard to believe, but Mrs. Columbo didn't marry me because I'm tall, dark and handsome." That earned grins from everyone, even the husband. "So one thing I gotta ask – and forgive me for being so blunt, Mr. Keenan, but how long have you known your wife had a lover?"
“I didn’t!” Keenan sputtered at Columbo. "I –“ He seemed to run down. “How did you –"
"Well, it's clear you two were sleeping in different bedrooms, so that made me wonder why. That's the way my mind works. So she was seeing someone." Keenan nodded. "Has there ever been a problem between you before?"
"No. No! My wife – All right, Doris liked men looking at her, all kinds of men, and she was a flirt, sure. But to be honest, I didn't mind, I really didn't, because she always went home with me. It made me proud that she was mine, when all the other men wanted her. And she was always very loving to me. Until recently, that is." He looked miserable.
"Their guest room was neat as a pin," Bill muttered. "How'd he know she was sleeping there?"
“So, Mr. Keenan, how long have you known?"
"I—I—" Keenan's face fell. "I didn't. At least not at first. Sure, I knew there was something wrong. We had fights, mostly about money she was spending, and wouldn't tell me on what. And then she moved into the guest bedroom a month ago. But it wasn't until this morning at breakfast she told me there was someone, someone she'd been seeing. I couldn't believe it! It was like she was bragging about it, saying she'd been seeing him right under my nose, someone I'd never believe, right here in my house."
"What did you take that to mean, someone you wouldn't believe?"
Keenan said bitterly, "My mind was whirling. Who was it? One of our friends? My brother Arthur? He was always flirting with her. An old boyfriend? The mailman? He whistled at her once. I tried to press her on it, but she wouldn't say anything else, except that she was going to tell him today that she was leaving me, and she'd be gone by tonight. But what could I do? I loved her. I begged her not to leave me. She said she was tired of me, that accountants were boring and she wanted to be with someone who had an exciting life." He paused. "My brother Arthur is a surgeon. Maybe he--"
“So then you killed her,” Bill said.
“No! I ran out of the house. I could barely see where I was driving. But where could I go? I ended up at work and stayed there, though I can’t remember anything I did while I was there. Then the police came and picked me up.” He looked up, his eyes wet with tears. “You can check with my boss— I was there all day. Oh Doris!” Keenan dropped his head in his arms and started to cry.
“Crocodile tears, you ask me.” Bill looked unimpressed. "The husband finds out, flies into a rage and kills her, then goes to work to create an alibi."
“I’m not so sure of that.” Columbo was at our elbow.
"Listen, I had a word with the medical examiner just before. Looks like the time of death may only be a few hours ago. If Keenan did it on his way to work, that would be about—what time is it?“ He took Bill’s wrist and looked at his watch. “Sorry, officer, my watch is on the fritz and I keep forgetting to pick it up. That watchmaker, he’s one of those originals, you know? Wears one of those, uh, whatchamacallits—" He made a gesture by his forehead. "Eye shades. Green ones. An old guy, knows his business, but he takes his time, not to make a pun of it. Okay, it's 4:30. Thanks." Bill pulled his wrist away. "So, anyway, the husband says he went to work about eight hours ago. If the murder occurred more recently than that, when the husband was at work, he can't be our guy.”
I got that. We had our work cut out for us.
We met up back in the station. At 7:50 PM we had all the crime scene photos and paperwork spread out on a table. It was still hot, so I’d taken off my holster and had it hanging on the coat rack with my jacket; my shirt sleeves were rolled up. I was dead tired, from the heat, from frustration. The usual stuff that comes with the job.
“It’s like I said,” Columbo continued. He’d taken off his raincoat and loosened his already loose tie. He took a drink of water from one of the glasses on the table. “You see, I worry. I mean, little things bother me. I’m a worrier. I mean, little insignificant details get up into my brain and I can’t eat, I can’t sleep. My wife, she says to me, 'You know, you're gonna drive me crazy, with all your details.'"
“I understand how she feels," Bill said under his breath.
"Come on, Bill. Lieutenant. What sort of things are bothering you?”
"You ask me," Bill interrupted, "you're overthinking the case, Lieutenant. Like I said, it seems pretty straightforward.”
“What about the time of death?” I shook my head. “There’s no getting around that. If it was close to noon—”
“Then the husband must’ve sneaked out from work, done the job and gone back.”
“Well, that’s a possibility, sure.” Columbo fidgeted around in his pockets and fished out the stub of a cigar. “You mind if I smoke?”
“Yes, I do,” I said. “If you don’t mind. Not enough ventilation here.”
“Ah, of course. I understand.” He put the cigar into his mouth, but didn’t light it. “It’s a lousy habit. Trying to quit. So. What have we got? Mrs. Keenan’s husband, Larry? You're pretty convinced it was him, Bill, but I don't think he's our guy.”
“That’s your opinion,” Bill groused.
“The boyfriend, then."
Columbo chewed his lip. “Now, that’s what I’m thinking, Joe. It's okay if I call you Joe?"
"That's my name."
Bill sat back. “We don't know for a fact that she really had a boyfriend. That’s just what her husband said. There could’ve been a dozen reasons why she was sleeping in the guest room. Why, I’ve had plenty of nights my wife made me sleep on the couch. Snoring, a cold, a little spat. Couples go through that, sometimes. Doesn’t your wife ever kick you out of bed, Lieutenant?”
“My wife?” Columbo grinned. “Nah. The only time she kicked me out of bed was when my dog—“ He scratched his head. “Sometimes I think she loves that dog more than me.”
“Maybe it was for insurance,” Bill suggested. “Maybe Keenan insured his wife for a bundle, then staged a homicide. Or hired someone to do it.”
“We’ll check the insurance angle,” I said. “And I suppose a murder for hire is a possibility…”
Columbo leaned forward. “Mind if we go over it from the beginning? The very beginning? See, I need to get my ducks in a row, like they say – but anyway, it might help if we take it from the top.”
“Sure.” I flipped open the file. “Shall I begin?”
“Okay, Joe.” Columbo grinned. He was a likeable guy, despite the fact one of his eyes wandered when you made eye contact. “Take it away.”
“All right. The call came in at around noon. Bill took the call—“
“Excuse me, Joe. Why you, Bill? The desk transfer it to you?”
“No, not the desk. I just happened to take it. Lucky thing I did, because I'm familiar with the neighborhood.”
“You mean where Mrs. Keenan lived."
“Well, I live down the block. My wife and I.”
Columbo rubbed his eyebrow. ”That was lucky, all right.”
“Yeah,” I said with a grin. “Bill’s wife’s worried there’s a housewife serial killer on the loose.”
“Well, I think that’s a pretty remote possibility, Joe. So Bill, you got the call and—“
“Well, I drove over to the house and found her in her bedroom, throat slit.”
Columbo flipped open a notepad. Looked as crumpled as the rest of him. “That’s what the crime scene team found, all right. So you and Sgt. Friday found her there.”
I shook my head. “No. I was just finishing giving testimony on the Briggs case.”
“Oh, oh, okay.” Columbo flipped a page of the notebook. “So you went with…who?”
“Nobody,” said Bill. “I was alone.”
“I just – I took the call and went.”
“Uh huh. Who phoned it in? I mean—“ Columbo squinted his non-wandering eye at Bill – “man, woman, kid? I hope you don’t mind me asking, Bill, but I'm curious—did the caller say there was a murdered woman? Because, if it was me, and they said there was a murder, there’s no way I’d go alone.”
“No, they didn’t say it was a murder. It was Doris who called. At least it sounded like her. She said someone was trying to get into her house. A prowler. If I’d known it was a going to be a murder, of course I’d have taken backup.” Bill shrugged. “At the time it seemed a routine call. But when I got there, Doris was dead, her throat cut open, and that’s when I called for assistance.”
“That’s when I got the call,” I concurred. “I came right over.”
Columbo turned back to Bill. “Did you know the Keenans well? Is that why you rushed over?”
Bill shook his head. “Well, no. Not at all. But it was on my street. I think you’d come over right away, too, Lieutenant, if there was a murder on your street.”
“Of course. But then, you didn’t know it was a murder, yet.”
Bill frowned in annoyance. “Okay. A disturbance, then. On my street.”
“Did you have to break in?”
“No. The door was unlocked. I called her name, and there was no answer. Once I found the body, I drew my weapon in case the murderer was still in the house.”
“Did you search the house at that time?”
“No. At this point I secured the premises and called for backup.”
“That’s when I came,” I added.
“What time was that, Joe?”
“A little after one, 1:15 or so.”
“Okay.” Columbo tapped his forehead again, in a gesture that was becoming familiar to me. “Forgive me, Officer Gannon. Bill. I didn’t mean to question your judgment. It’s just there are a couple of loose ends I'd like to tie up. Nothing important, you understand.”
“Can’t imagine what’s unclear, Lieutenant.”
“Just stay with me a minute. So what time was the call?”
“At 12:01, exactly. You can see it on my notes. I was eating lunch.”
“Well," I sighed, "if it really was Mrs. Keenan who called you, then we have double corroboration that it wasn’t the husband, who was at work.”
“Come on Joe, don't forget he could’ve hired someone to kill her,” said Bill.
“Let’s move on for a moment. You got there when?”
“12:25, 12:30 or so.”
"You saw the deceased woman— Mrs. Keenan— on the bed.”
“Yep, Doris was right there on the bed. Blood everywhere.”
“Uh huh. Did you see a weapon present?”
“I didn’t see it right away. But from the ragged natured of the cut, it looked like it was from a steak knife. One of them was missing from a set of eight. I believe Crime Scene found it later, in the bushes outside.”
Columbo paused. He tapped his temple a few more times, and scratched his head for good measure. The man had a whole symphony of tics. “Part of her set of steak knives…you noticed one was missing, that right?”
“Hmm.” Columbo fidgeted with his notebook again. “You see, Bill, there’s one of the little things that bother me. One of those things that can keep me up at night. You say you noticed right away there was a steak knife missing…”
“But here’s the thing, Bill. I looked around the kitchen, and I couldn't see any knives out on the counter. I found them in the pantry, not out in the open. And you say you didn’t search the house after you found the body, but just secured it. So from the time you entered the open door and found the body, and saw the ragged cut on her neck, and then secured the premises and called for backup, when exactly did you happen to see the set of steak knives in her pantry?”
“I—I…” Bill looked at me, and then back at Columbo. “I walked through the kitchen when I was looking for Doris. When I came in. That’s when.”
Columbo looked at his notes. “And you opened the pantry door, which was closed.”
“No, it was open. Of course it was open. Probably one of the Crime Scene people closed it.” Bill put his hands in his pockets. “That’s what must’ve happened.”
“Right, right.” Columbo looked at the stub of his cigar with distaste, and shoved it into his shirt pocket. “And you were able to walk right into the house, even though when Mrs. Keenan called you she was terrified about someone outside. A woman terrified, who doesn’t even lock her door. How does that add up?”
“I don’t get that either, Officer Gannon, unless she’s not terrified at all, and maybe she’s expecting someone.”
Bill said nothing. There was sweat on his forehead.
“See, Officer Gannon, that’s what I mean when I talk about those little things that bug me, that get in my brain and keep me up at night. Like how you keep saying you didn’t know the Keenans, and didn’t socialize with them, that you maybe saw Mrs. Keenan once or twice in the driveway, and yet you knew her voice on the phone. But the funny thing is, the thing that gets me most, is that you keep calling her Doris. Every time you talk about her, it’s Doris, not Mrs. Keenan, not ‘the deceased,’ just Doris. Now, Joe here, he refers to her as Mrs. Keenan, or the deceased, or even ‘the body.’ But you, Bill, you call this woman you didn’t know, who you barely ever saw, you call her by her given name. Every single time.” Columbo’s focus shifted to me. “Tell me, Sergeant Friday. Is that something your partner Officer Gannon has a habit of doing, calling crime victims by their first name, like he knows them?”
“No,” I said slowly, “it isn’t. Columbo, you're saying—"
“What I’m saying, Joe, and I’m sorry to be saying it, is that each one of these little things, these things that don’t add up, the steak knives and the open door and the name Doris, well, each one by itself could be a coincidence. Like Officer Gannon's watch. Believe me, it'd take months on my lieutenant's salary to pay for a watch like that. Sure, it could be a gift…but from whom?" Columbo drew in a long breath and let it out. "But even if by some miracle all of these things were coincidences, there’s one other thing. Just one thing, that doesn’t make any sense any other way.”
“Well, Joe.” Columbo stood up, took a step toward the door and gestured toward the Squad Room. “On the way over here I had the phone company look into incoming calls to this precinct around noon, today, and you know what I found?” He turned toward Bill. “You know what I found out, Officer Gannon? There were three calls between 11:30 am and 12 noon from the Keenan house, and all three of them went directly to Officer Gannon’s extension. And when I asked the desk sergeant if he saw you around noon today he told me you raced out of here so fast you knocked your coffee off the desk and didn’t bother to clean it up. He said that wasn't like you at all, because usually you're very considerate, and neat, and even tempered. And then you bolted out of here."
I stood up, and took a step toward my partner. He still sat, immovable. The look on his face was stony; he didn't look like the Bill Gannon I knew.
Columbo put his notebook away and leaned over the table. “So here’s what I think, Officer Gannon. The call didn't come after the crime; it was the other way around. I think Doris Keenan was a woman who wasn't ever happy with what she had. She had fantasies about what would make her happy. Doris’ husband was telling the truth, that his wife did have a lover, and that he’d ‘never believe who it was,' because the guy right under his nose was the regular guy from down the street who did a whole lot more than wave at Mrs. Keenan from his driveway.”
I don't like to swear, but I did then.
The Lieutenant's affable face was steely now. “That guy had fantasies, too, about this beautiful woman who wanted him. Then Mrs. Keenan – Doris – told her lover that she was ready to leave her husband and run off with him. But he didn’t want that. He didn’t want divorce, and complications. He wanted his suburban life, with his wife, and his mistress down the street who bought him presents. So when she called and told him her plan, he panicked. He argued with her, but she wouldn't change her mind. His life was about to change forever. So he went over there to shut her up. He knew he could cover up his involvement, because—"
“Because he was a cop." I pinched the bridge of my nose. "Jesus, Bill."
Columbo looked at me with genuine sympathy. He walked over to me and put his hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry, Joe.”
“So am I, Lieutenant," I said sadly. "So am I.”
“You’ll both be sorry.” There was the screech of a chair, and Bill was standing. His weapon was in his hand – I hadn't even known he had it on him.
"Drop it, Bill." But I couldn't do a thing, not a damn thing. My own gun was in its holster, hanging on the coat hook across the room.
"I don't think so, Joe."
Bill didn't say a thing more then, just slowly pointed the gun at Columbo. The Lieutenant didn't shrink away. He just stood there, and said quietly, "Officer Gannon. You made a mistake. A bad one. Don't make things worse."
"Shut up! You've said enough, with your little ideas and crap about your wife and your dog and things that bother you in the night. I've had enough of them!" The hand holding the gun shook with tension.
"Don't do it," I said. "Please, Bill."
"Why? What does it matter?" His hand was shaking so hard he gripped it with both hands. "I took care of everything. Why did he have to show up and ruin it?"
"There's no way out, Officer," said Columbo. "Give me the gun, and let's all walk out of here."
I chanced taking a step closer. "Come on, Bill. You'll never get out of here alive if you do this."
Bill turned to me, fury still in his eyes. And then, slowly, his face changed, until he looked like the Bill Gannon I knew, the Bill I'd worked with for so long. "Alive," he said. "She made me feel alive." His eyes were sad. "But I guess you're right, Joe." He put the gun under his chin. "You're usually right."
The noise was something I'd like to forget. Too bad I can't.
I carry a badge. I've been on the job a long time, and seen a lot of cases.
Some cases have happy endings. This one didn't. Nobody won, and two people died. Because Los Angeles is a big city, a city where you'll find everything, good people and bad people, including, I'm sorry to say, a bad cop disguised as a good one.
But it also has cops like Columbo. So maybe, in the end, the scales of justice do come out even.
That's Los Angeles for you.