I was lucky enough to have my first spec script, Columbo: Murder by Suicide, purchased at the behest of series star, Peter Falk. My second script, Columbo: Now You See Him, Now You Don’t, was awarded top honors in the American Accolades Movie of the Week Screenwriting Competition.
I do not have the Columbo copyright. This is fan-fiction; the first of a series of short stories, with the emphasis not on the murder, but the final meeting of Columbo and the murderer, when all is made clear; When the Lieutenant Proclaims the Jig Is Up!
If you enjoy this short story, and have any insight as to how one may obtain the rights to publish a Columbo book of short stories, please email me at DW@douglaswentworth.com. I would be most grateful.
And now, my first Columbo short story: It All Comes Out In the Wash
Mary Alyce Albryce was a dainty old lady. Weighing in at eighty pounds, soaking wet, she did not project the persona of a formidable opponent. She spent her days attending to her award-winning garden, writing poetry, then, after an early lunch, she’d faithfully attend to the family laundry. And there was plenty of it, for Mary lived with four grandchildren in a Bel Air, Spanish-Revival home, nestled in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains.
But to Mary’s new neighbor, Glen Sedland, she was a Goliath, a giant to be slayed. For Sedland’s property abutted Mary’s and, hoping to avoid a legal conflict, he had a discussion with Mary, detailing his plans for a new fence and guest house close to their common boundary.
When Mary examined the plans, she explained that, under California law, structures and fences cannot be higher than ten feet, without a specific purpose. She was very apologetic, stating that even though it appeared his proposed structure met the criteria of a ‘specific purpose’, she was afraid it would block the much-needed sunlight for her world-renowned garden. Thus, she would fight the proposal, in court, if necessary. Sedland furiously pondered the best way to handle this refusal. Should he argue with her vehemently? Wait to consult with some high-priced lawyers? Wait a moment, he thought. It will be quicker, and much less expensive, to remove the obstacle: the little old lady that had just dared to say ‘no’.
Sedland assured Mary that he would rethink the structure; that he only wanted to please her. And now it was time to grease the wheels of his plan to bulldoze through her rejection.
On weekdays, when the grandchildren were in school, Glen ingratiated himself into Mary’s daily chores. He’d point out the weeds in the garden, listen with ‘rapt’ attention to her poems, and force himself to not show hunger after eating the standard, sparse lunch of salad and salmon croquettes. And every day, at noon, stating his work was beckoning, he’d bid Mary, adieu.
As Sedland strolled back to his own mansion, he’d review what he had learned; that Mary’s only daughter died two years ago, that the grandchildren left for school at seven in the morning, that they did not return until four P.M., and that Mary did not have daytime visitors; she spoke by phone with her friends after dinner while the grandchildren cleaned house. But most importantly, Glen had full knowledge of Mary’s security system, for Glen had feigned ignorance of the best system to install, and Mary gladly explained, in minutia, how her security system worked. He almost jumped for joy when he discovered her system’s weakness: the lack of full video and audio coverage indoors (“for the privacy of my grandchildren, you understand”), and the blind spots of the exterior cameras.
By the end of week one, Sedland had the layout of the house down pat, and a twisted plot of murder had formed.
And on the first Friday in July, on a blazingly hot, Los Angeles, day, Mary Alyce Albryce was shot through the heart and died instantly. It would be up to Lieutenant Columbo, of the homicide division of the Los Angeles Police Department, to crack the case.
Three days later…
Glen Sedland walked like a man with a purpose into Mary’s kitchen. He was sick of the accusations that floated under the surface of Columbo’s ocean of innuendo. He roughly pushed aside a few patrolmen and strode up to the Lieutenant.
“Columbo. Did I not make myself clear that I had nothing to do with this, this murder?”, proclaimed Sedland with controlled anger. “You’ve bothered me at work, at my tennis club, and just interrupted a lunch with a potential client. I’m contemplating a discussion with your superiors. And your dismissal will be my first topic of conversation.”
“That won’t be necessary, sir.” stated Columbo as he raised his hand, as if to stop the onslaught of words. Then, with a squint of his eyes and an exhalation of cigar smoke, he continued.
“You’re under arrest for the murder of Mary Alyce Albryce.”
Sedland emitted a one-note burst of laughter. “This I gotta hear. You have no proof, no proof at all, that I did anything except spend the first half of the day with her. I left right after lunch. The security tapes prove that.”
“I’ve got to hand it to you, sir. The idea of faking a lunch was brilliant. But I’m getting ahead of myself. My wife says I always do that. Please, sir. Take a seat. This has been quite puzzling. Oh, very puzzling indeed.”
The chair that was pulled roughly from the table groaned as Sedland slammed his weight into it. He looked at his watch. “I’ll give you five minutes, Columbo.”
“It may take ten, sir,” said the Lieutenant, grinning sardonically.
“Here’s how I figure it. You knew there were ways to get in and out of this house without being seen. You used that to your advantage. I give you credit for that, sir. On the day of the murder, you showed up at nine A.M., like you always did. You spent some time in the garden, had a glass of lemonade under the gazebo as you listened to some poetry, then you headed in for lunch.”
“No kidding. I attested to that in my sworn statement.”
“But you never had a lunch, sir. Oh, you did a good job faking you had one. But you didn’t have a lunch because you had to kill Mrs. Albryce at 11:00am, to give yourself time to then set the scene and still make it to your office, to get to work, sir. And you knew that if Mrs. Albryce didn’t eat something, it would show in the autopsy.”
The Lieutenant paused and shook his head, sadly.
“So you forced that kind, gentle old lady to take a few bites. We found a fork with her prints and, oh yes, we found plates in the sink, covered with some crumbs of salmon croquettes and bits of salad. But you know what we couldn’t find on them, sir? A second set of fingerprints. We could only find one set! And yet you stated that Mrs. Albryce would take the plates from the shelf, place them on the counter to be filled with food, and placed on the table for you to eat. Yet all we can find are one set of prints!”
The one-note burst of laughter again, but this time continuing like the machine gun fire for a full minute.
“Columbo, you old fool,” cooed Sedland as he wiped tears away from his cheek. “You need to find a “Detective for Dummies’ book or something. You just said it. She took plates from the shelf, she placed them on the counter, she loaded them with food, and she alone placed them on the table. I never touched them, that’s why you only found Mrs. Albryce’s prints on the plates.”
Columbo put his hand to his forehead; cigar ash falling to the floor. “Oh, I’m not talking about Mrs. Albryce’s prints.”
“You’re not?” Sedland’s mouth suddenly became very dry.
“No, oh, no, sir. We didn’t find any of her fingerprints on the plates. We found one set of her grandchildren’s fingerprints on the plate. You see, sir, after dinner, the grandkids would clean up and put the day’s plates in the dishwasher. In the morning, before leaving for school, one of them, in this case, Amy, would take the dishes out and stack them on the shelf, depositing one set of fingerprints, the ones we found. But if Mrs. Albryce served you lunch, her fingerprints would’ve been on them also. And they weren’t. And do you know why, sir? Because you were wearing gloves when you staged the lunch scene.”
Sedland’s lower lip began to shake involuntarily. “She, uh, well, uh, she had her gardening gloves on. Yes! That’s it, her gardening gloves. Whew, Columbo you had me going for a moment, but you still have nothing.”
“Oh, I may have something, sir. May I go on? After you forced a defenseless woman to eat some food, you shot her. Even though you used a silencer, some of the outside cameras still picked up a slight sound, at exactly eleven ten A.M. You were hoping the extreme heat of the day would cloud the time of death; as the body would still be very warm at two P.M., the time you were hoping we would peg as the time of the murder. The time you would have a rock-solid alibi by some unsuspecting client, in your office, ten miles away.”
“But I do have that alibi. The client swears to it.” Sedland stood up so fast that his chair slid back about five feet; crashing into the stainless-steel refrigerator. “When you can refute that, you know where to find me.”
Sedland made toward the back door. A uniformed officer stepped in his way. Fuming, Sedland turned toward Columbo.
“Lieutenant, if this man doesn’t move out of my way, I won’t be responsible for my actions.”
“I promise you’ll be leaving here in a few minutes, sir. Now, where were we? Yes, after shooting Mrs. Albryce, you now had to make it look like she did her Friday afternoon laundry. Now, I know you’re not a homemaker, Mr. Sedland, so I can’t fault you for the mistakes you made here on out with the laundry. I probably would’ve made them also.
“Columbo, I hardly believe that you, or your wife for that matter, have ever seen a washing machine, much less used one.”
Columbo’s eyes narrowed. “Say what you want about me, sir, but I can tell you this, my wife never would’ve made the dumb mistakes you did.” Columbo looked around the room. “Let’s go look at the washing machine. What do you say, fellas?”
Two patrolmen, one on either side of Sedland, guided him into the laundry room, where recent models of both a washing machine and dryer are placed against one wall.
“I have to hand it to you, sir. Mrs Albryce must have told you over the last three weeks, that she would strip the beds and take the sheets and pillowcases down to the laundry room, collecting all the white towels in various rooms, along the way. Friday was the day for washing whites only. You got that part right, I’ll give you that.”
Columbo walked over to the washer machine and pointed at the display.
“You know, when we arrived on the scene, around ten past four, the first thing I noticed, when I knelt down to look at the washer, was that my hand was resting on the dryer, and yet it wasn’t warm. I opened the door and felt the clothes. Dry as a bone, sir! But not warm. Later, when one of the grandchildren explained Mrs. Albryce’s laundry habits, I learned she usually placed clothes in the dryer around three P.M., and the cycle didn’t finish until around four P.M., and that when the kids took the laundry back to their rooms, it was still warm. As soon as I heard this, I knew that something out of the ordinary had happened.”
“Columbo, people’s habits change all the time. Maybe a neighbor rang the bell for a visit, maybe she made a phone call…”
“No, sir. We checked with the neighbors and the phone company. No, it wasn’t that. May I show you the other mistakes you made?”
If dagger-like eyes could kill, the Lieutenant would’ve been a dead man.
“You made two mistakes with the wash. You see, when I looked at the washer, I noticed a small light on the panel was lit. I had to check the manual, I found it right over there, sir. And I found that light was the ‘Suds’ alert, meaning too much detergent had been added. You might not know this, sir, but these new machines, oh, they’re not like the old ones! Like the ones I grew up with. Oh no. With these new ones, you don’t need to add detergent! Oh, you do, but not all the time. There’s a container built into the machine, built into it, sir! You fill the container with liquid detergent, and the machine will release the proper amount for every load. You didn’t know this. How could you? So when you added powdered detergent, you inadvertently overloaded the machine.”
The Lieutenant glanced over at Sedland, who was now chewing his lower lip. Sedland’s reply dripped with contempt. “Go on. Let me hear the rest of your fairytale.”
“Oh, just one more thing, sir, one more thing. When I opened the washer, I noticed something.”
“Pray tell, what was that?”
“There was no smell of bleach.”
Glen looked heavenward. “And what the hell does that have to do with anything?”
“Well, sir. When you wash whites, at least when Mrs. Albryce did, she added bleach. You know, to sanitize, to kill the germs! You can’t miss the smell, sir. When my wife does the whites, oh, you can smell bleach everywhere.”
A gleam of hope leapt into Sedland’s eyes. “Wait a minute, Columbo. I can see it from here. Yes, there! There it is! A ‘sanitize’ setting on the washing machine’s control panel. I bet she used that! Shove that in your stinking cigar and smoke it.”
“No, sir,” said Columbo contritely. “She never used that setting.”
Sedland exploded. “Now how the hell do you know that?”
“We had a technician come onsite, sir; to confirm that bleach wasn’t used, and to confirm that too much detergent had been added. He told us, sir. He told us the sanitize setting was never used.”
“And what was he, Nostradamus, or a Ouija board expert?
“No, sir, just a technician. He showed me the washing machine’s app on Mrs. Albryce’s smart phone. Can you believe it, sir? Your phone can talk to these new washing machines! I couldn’t believe it, but there it was, plain as day, the time that you ran this particular wash. It was at eleven twenty A.M., sir. The same time you claimed you were both eating lunch.”
Columbo looked Sedland straight in the eye. “You killed her, set up a fake lunch scene. Ran a wash cycle. You then left the house, purposely taking the route that showed clearly on an exterior security camera, so it would look, for all the world to see, that you left here right after lunch. We have clear video of you, in T-shirt and shorts, leaving the premises.”
“I told you that.”
“But we know that you came back later. You had to, sir. You had to throw the wash in the dryer, so it would look like Mrs. Albryce finished the laundry. And when you came back, you were wearing a suit, you were dressed for work. But this time, when you came to the house, you took a back route that cuts through the garden, a route with no security cameras. You came into a door you had previously unlocked, threw the clothes in the dryer, started it, and left by the same route. You then got in your car and drove to work.”
Sedland stared at the ground, unseeing, for a full minute, then lifted his head. He slowly rotated it, left to right, looking at everyone in the room. “I just thought of something. If I were a juror, I may believe your cock and bull story, but I still wouldn’t have any hard evidence that Mr. Glen James Sedland, came back to this house, after he was clearly seen leaving it.”
The Lieutenant slapped himself on the forehead. “That’s my fault, sir. I forgot to mention one thing. Remember when I came to your office that afternoon, told you about your neighbor’s murder? You even stated that you knew when I told you about Mrs. Albryce’s death that you would be a suspect, as you had spent time with her every weekday for the past month. Well, remember when I saw your suit jacket hanging up, and I touched the sleeve and told you I’d never felt such comfortable cloth?”
“Well, sir, I had noticed a fragment of a cream-colored petal on your sleeve. I couldn’t miss it! I see those types of petals all the time. My wife. My wife, sir, she loves sweat pea flowers. Purple, red, pink. Oh, you name it, sir, my wife has them. And I’m always cleaning up petals. And I saw one stuck to your cuff.”
“Columbo. When you entered my office building, did you happen to notice we have commercial grade planters in the lobby and common areas?” Sedland waved his hands all around. “For God’s sake we even have planters in this room! There loaded with all types of flowers!”
“Oh, yes, yes, sir. I noticed all the various plants in the planters, yes. But the fragment on your sleeve, sir, I had that examined.” The Lieutenant reached into his pocket and pulled out a small polyethylene bag. “I have it right here, sir. See that petal fragment, in the bag? That fragment, it’s from a particular flowering plant, the Ventura Marsh Mikvetch.”
“It only grows in three places in California, sir. Three places! That’s how rare, how endangered it is!”
The fight has drained out of Sedland. “Three places?”
“Oh yes, sir. The other two are hundreds of miles away. Mrs. Albryce’s garden won an award because of it. She probably mentioned it to you, sir. But your mind wasn’t on endangered flowers as you stood in that garden, the past three weeks, was it?”
Sedland shook his head. “A perfect plan ruined by a dying breed of flower. What a waste.”
“Oh, I agree with you, sir. You wanted to build on your land so badly, that you wasted the life of a lovely old lady and ruined the lives of four devoted grandchildren.”
Columbo motioned to one of the patrolmen. “Officer.”
The patrolman already had the cuffs in his hands.