The Missing Guest
It was a nice study, the kind you’d have picked if you were a location scout working on a Columbo movie. It had the right mix of foreign knick-knacks and expensive furniture to have the audience realise that this week the scruffy detective was going to be hopelessly outclassed on the social scale.
‘The Case of the Toffee-Nosed Killer,’ Masie mused aloud, speculating on the episode’s title.
‘Never mind Bradders, what’s the verdict?’
Bradley looked up from the corpse he was examining.
‘Sorry Masie, this one’s got me beat all ends up.’
‘Right, so it’s the bullet hole in his head then?’
‘Now your guess really is as good as mine. I mean I might get him on the slab and find he died of natural causes, but as you have so cleverly observed there’s a whopping great .22 calibre hole in his head.’
‘In there somewhere. Doubt it will help you, he was shot by his own gun and SOCO already say it’s got no prints on it. French doors were wide open, and it looks like shooter lured him towards it and bang, dead.’
‘How’d you know it was his gun?’
‘It was a gift, recently fired, right calibre, missing a bullet, and there’s a loving inscription on the handle.’
Masie followed the direction of Bradley’s nod and picked up the sealed plastic bag on the table containing one used silver revolver.
‘The inscription. It’s a present from the dinner party mob?’
‘If they’re CBC Cohort Sixteen, then yes.’
Bradley stood to stretch his legs and Masie took his place, squatting on her haunches to examine the victim. He was portly, brown-skinned, expensively attired; dead. There was little more to say. He’d been a Sri-Lankan playwright and a bit of a celebrity in theatre circles she’d been told. Masie didn’t like the theatre, she much preferred Netflix so she knew nothing about it or the people who considered it an art form. The hole in his forehead was neat, no gunshot residue, which meant he’d been inside and the shooter had been some distance away, probably outside in the garden.
‘Where was the gun when it was found?’
‘Chalk and little yellow marker thingy.’
‘I’m not scrubbing around looking at SOCO’s scribbles and cross-referencing their checklist.’
‘No, I can see I have misjudged you. You wouldn’t do that because then you’d be doing your job and not disturbing me when I’m trying to do mine. It was just inside those French windows.’
Bradley’s sarcasm was as wasted as he’d known it would be.
‘Did you see it, or have you been scrubbing around looking at SOCO’s scribbles?’
‘It was there when I got here.’
‘Which way was the barrel facing?’
‘Er, towards the back wall.’
‘Right, so tossed in then?’
‘You’re the detective.’
Masie breathed in deeply. It was going to be a long night. There were fourteen witnesses to interview and her sergeant had already said they pretty much had the same story. She could bear the tedium if she was having to think, to form a composite picture, but fourteen versions of the same thing? She’d go quietly insane.
The story was possibly the dullest recollection of events around a murder she’d ever had the misfortune to hear. The victim, Darius Sinhala, invited them over for a celebratory dinner. After the main course he said he wanted to read to them from his latest play. He left them at the table and had come into his study to get the manuscript. A minute later they heard a bang, called out to him and got no answer. They then proceeded to enter the study where they found him dead. They went out through the French doors into the garden to see if there was any sign of his killer. They went as a group because they were scared the shooter might still be about, but nobody saw anything.
‘Not very helpful at all,’ Masie said under her breath as she flipped through her sergeants notes. They dinner party trampled through all the evidence. She peered out into the dark. It was raining. If they found anything to connect the killer to the site in the morning they’d be fortunate indeed. It didn’t help that there were gravel paths everywhere so the killer wouldn’t necessarily have left a usable footprint anyway.
What would Columbo do?
She sat in the kitchen and did what Columbo never did - she flipped open her iPad. Her sergeant had already entered the names of the dinner guests into the case file so she began Googling them one by one. None were noteworthy. A Facebook entry here, an Instagram photo there, the odd angry post, but nobody stood out. These were ordinary people.
Jimmy appeared in the doorway.
‘Let’s make a start. How about we begin with this Janine woman. I’m looking at her Facebook profile and her eyes are definitely too close together. She’s got killer written all over her.’
‘Right Maam, I’ll get her.’
Janine was as useful as a chocolate fireguard. The next interviewee was Christa. She ventured that she thought she saw a shadow, but then wasn’t sure, and anyway she was jet lagged having just flown in from Rio. David followed her. He started out by saying he didn’t know what he could add, and when asked to give his version of events said: ‘Well what did the others say? I was with them.’ Helpful, not! A man called Dele, who was definitely drunk and had stains of dubious origin on his trousers, said he told the others it was a gunshot, but Chris said he was an expert on firearms and it was a car backfiring. Was Chris an expert on firearms? It turned out he wasn’t, he only wrote the kind of stuff where people get shot all the time. Chris was blasé about the murder. He seemed more concerned by the fact he’d bet Dele that if it were a gunshot he’d abandon crime thrillers and switch to writing romantic fiction.
Masie paused to contemplate the kind of romantic fiction that might feature a lot of shooting. I’d buy it to read on a plane. He could be onto something there...
‘We’re not getting anywhere. This lot are hopeless.’
Yes, she thought, hopeless indeed. Someone called James who worked for the government reckoned Adam shot Darius because he’d not found his writing funny. Pressed for detail, James admitted this was his idea of a joke. Of course Adam hadn’t shot him, Adam was arguing with Liz when the shot rang out.
‘Remind me,’ Masie said wearily, ‘what were Adam and Liz arguing about again?’
‘Whether you could have a film about a book about a play.’
Masie shook her head sadly. It was ludicrous.
‘You forgot Maam.’
Jimmy flipped his notepad to the appropriate page.
‘When asked about the argument, Bridget verified it was true because she’d joined in to suggest they set the whole thing in a Kibbutz, which started another argument because the Helen woman wanted to set it in the 18th century and there were no kibbutzes then, which sparked another debate about the correct plural form of kibbutz, which the man Adrian provided, and that proved he was taking part too and therefore he couldn’t be our killer. I think at this point Maam you were chewing a corner off the table.’
‘God give me strength. What is the plural of kibbutz again?’
Jimmy rolled his eyes.
‘I didn’t make a note. Would you like me to get Adrian back in?’
‘No! Once was enough. I’m still recovering from that Helen woman. Tell me she didn’t really want to re-enact the whole thing for us.’
‘She an actor Maam, it’s what they do.’
Masie groaned. She skipped though her notes, listing names as she came to them. She paused to re-read what she’d made of the last two. Helen had been only mildly eccentric compared with Diane, who was convinced the most likely explanation was that an inmate had escaped from a nearby mental institution and had then gone on at length about the strange goings on in such places. She wondered whether Diane knew a bit too much about mental institutions for a normal person, but then along came Ivan to make her theory entirely plausible, as he began interviewing her and Jimmy, typing an outline of the case on his notepad for his next non-fiction book.
‘Is that it Jimmy? Is that the entire list?’
‘No Maam, you seem to have left out Marlene, who doodled us a sketch of the dead
man and then added comic extras and speech bubbles for our benefit.’
‘Strewth! Yes, who could forget Marlene and her doodles.’
‘Yes Maam, and since they’re all an alibi for each other it clearly isn’t one of them, and they don’t seem to be able to provide a clue to who it might be. They don’t mix much, none of them has seen the victim more than once in the last six months, and it seems he just got them together to show off his new play.’
‘His new play…’
‘This new play, what’s it about?’
‘I don’t know Maam.’
‘Well where is it?’
Jimmy raised his eyebrows.
‘I don’t know that either, I don’t think we looked for it.’
‘Oh you complete muppet. He comes into the study to get his new play. He gets shot. The gun is here, so where’s the play? I bet the play is the motive. He must have written something in it bad enough to get himself shot.’
Masie got to her feet and hurried back to the study. A chastened Jimmy followed. When they got there A SOCO officer was putting the bagged items into boxes.
‘Have you bagged up anything that looked like a manuscript? It might have been bound or loose. Can’t say.’
She looked at her checklist.
‘No, it’s not on the list so we haven’t bagged it.’
‘Right Jimmy boy, get searching.’
They searched high and low. There were many documents, letters to and from an agent called Rob who was very excited and looking forward to reading the new play, but no play itself.
A tap on the door disturbed them.
‘Yes? Come in!’
A woman poked her head in. Masie recognised her as the one called Christa.
‘Yes, it’s Christa isn’t it?’
‘Yes that’s right.’
‘So Christa, how can I help?’
Christa looked squeamishly at the bloodstained carpet where Sinhala had been. She needed to be prompted again.
‘Christa, can I help?’
‘Oh yes, sorry. Er we thought you ought to know that we weren’t all here tonight.’
‘You what? You weren’t all here?’
‘No. Someone was missing.’
Masie was suddenly alert.
‘Who was missing?’
‘We don’t know. Someone was supposed to join our writing group who pulled out at the last minute. Darius said he’d tracked him or her down and they’d be joining us.’
Masie slumped into a chair. All this time going round in circles with you loonies and now you tell me this?
‘Is that all you know about this mystery guest?’
‘Yup. That’s it.’
‘And the others?’
Christa curled her lips.
‘Sorry, they don’t know anything more than I do.’
‘I see. Well thank you Christa.’
Christa hesitated in the doorway.
‘Will we be able to go soon?’
Masie looked at Jimmy. He looked back at her and shrugged.
‘Just give us five minutes. Jimmy will be out shortly to tell you it’s okay to head off home.’
Christa left. Masie made a steeple of her fingers and twiddled her thumbs. She’d been looking for a killer right up until that moment, now she had no need to.
‘Maam?’ Jimmy looked at her expectantly. The boss had a history of solving crimes when her fingers formed a steeple and she twiddled her thumbs.
‘I know who did it.’
‘You do?’ Jimmy’s face betrayed his incredulity. If his boss had solved the crime with the flimsy evidence and rubbish interviews, she was a genius.
‘Yup. I’ve seen it before, and we’re not going to close this one.’
‘Seen it before? When?’
‘You’ve never seen Columbo have you?’
Jimmy shook his head.
‘At least one of that lot has. Columbo always got his man, and you always knew from the outset who the killer was. There was only one episode where the killer got away…’
Masie fell silent. Jimmy waited but she was lost in thought. The sound of restless people waiting to go home in the next room finally forced him to interrupt her reverie.
‘So Maam, you were saying about Columbo and our killer...’
‘Oh yes. In one episode he didn’t catch the killer even though he knew who’d done it. There was no proof you see. The suspects appeared to inadvertently destroy the evidence and provide each other with an alibi. Want to know who killed our playwright and why we’ll never close the case? It’s simple, they all did, and we’ll never prove otherwise. It was the missing guest that gave the game away, you see that was the title of the episode.’