I’ve written here before about my lifelong interest in detective fiction, which was jumpstarted by my exposure as a child to such TV sleuths as Sherlock Holmes (as played by Jeremy Brett), Hercule Poirot (David Suchet), and Columbo (Peter Falk).
I could write a long list of TV detectives who have inspired me, and my writing, in one way or another. However, there is one such character whose show’s entire premise has bothered me since the series’ height of popularity in the 80s. You see, most TV detective had a very good reason for being involved in the investigation of crimes. Columbo was a homicide detective, Steve McGarrett led Hawaii’s state police, Quincy was a medical examiner, Holmes was a consulting detective, and Monk was a former cop who was often called in to consult on cases. But, this other character I’ve just hinted at had absolutely no good reason to be present EVERY SINGLE TIME a murder took place in the tiny town she inhabited (it’s amazing there was any population left), yet for 12 seasons people dropped dead everywhere she went and she (not the police) managed to figure out who the killer was.
A few years ago, my annoyance with this show made me write a little piece of fiction in which this character of whom I speak, in a thinly disguised version, finally meets her match in one of my favorite TV investigators (in another thinly disguised version) and the truth is brought to light! When the topic came up in discussion recently, I dug out that old story to post here today. Most of you who read this will probably recognize who the characters “really” are.
THE QUEEN OF ALL KILLERS
“She said yes! She said yes! She’s coming to the wedding!”
Elizabeth Appleton had just opened the mail and was thrilled. Her mother, Regina, came rushing into the foyer to see what the fuss was about.
“Who’s coming to the wedding?”
“Julia Fisher! I sent her an invitation. It was just a silly, crazy idea and I didn’t think she’d even bother to respond. I didn’t think she’d really come! This is amazing!”
Regina tilted her head and looked at her daughter as if she were talking to a lunatic. “You mean you actually sent an invitation to that mystery writer you’re always talking about? We don’t even know the woman! What a waste of a perfectly good place setting. We could have used the space to seat one of your cousins.”
“Mother, there are already more cousins coming that you can count, and I haven’t even seen most of them more than two or three times in my life; I hardly know them. Miss Fisher’s been with me my whole life, maybe not in person, but certainly through her books. And I’ll have you know she’s not just a mystery writer. She’s a real amateur detective. She started out writing fiction, but she’s stumbled across many real cases too, and she’s put the police to shame more than once by figuring it out before they did. I don’t care whether you like it or not. It’s my wedding and I’ll invite whomever I please!”
Almost out of breath from putting her mother in her place, Elizabeth took the letter and its envelope and marched up the high, spiraling staircase and into her bedroom.
She took the letter and tucked it away between the pages of Julia Fisher’s latest book and put the book back on the shelf. Fisher was the author with the most space devoted to her work on Elizabeth’s shelves and Elizabeth was almost as excited about Fisher’s coming to the wedding as she was about the wedding itself. She sat down on the edge of the bed and smiled, feeling silly and giddy and completely happy. The wedding was only two weeks away. Soon she would be Mrs. Thomas Grant. She would be married, out of her parents’ house, looking forward to planning a family, and would finally have the chance to meet her favorite author. Things, she decided as she sat there, couldn’t possibly be any better.
Downstairs, Regina Appleton threw herself back into the task of making sure everything would be perfect for Elizabeth’s big day. The first of her children would be married soon and she wanted the day to be one none of the guests would ever forget. The arrangements had been made with the country club, the menu had been finalized, musicians had been hired, dresses were selected, and most of the invitations had been responded to. Everything was almost set.
Dr. Andrew Appleton arrived home the following afternoon. He had been gone nearly a week on business, a seminar for corporate chemists. He kissed his wife on the cheek and settled into his favorite chair. He had not seen his wife since leaving for the seminar, but they had spoken on the phone several times over the course of his trip. “Frank called me last night,” he told her.
“Frank who?” Regina put her magazine down and shot a cold glance in Andrew’s direction.
“Frank Dante. Who did you think I meant?”
“That’s who I was afraid you meant. What did he want?”
“To tell us he’ll be coming to the wedding. It’ll just be Frank though; his wife can’t make it. She’s going to visit her sister in Maine or some such place.”
“Andrew, why on earth did you invite that slob?”
“Because he’s an old friend of the family, that’s why. I don’t see what you have against him, Regina.”
“No, Andrew, he is not an old friend of the family. He’s an old friend of you! I never liked the man. He’s a little weasel, always wearing that wretched old trench coat like he thinks he’s Sam Spade or something and constantly chomping on those horrendous cigars of his. That wife of his must be either an angel or a lunatic to put up with someone like him. I just hope he doesn’t offend our more civilized guests.”
“Well, he almost declined, but he changed his mind at the last minute.”
“Why? What did you say to convince him?”
“Well, his interest seemed to peak when I told him Lizzie had invited that mystery writer, Fisher.”
Regina stood up. She was angry. “That is just wonderful, Andrew, just wonderful! We have a celebrity coming to the wedding and now the poor woman will have to put up with Frank Dante! You’re determined to embarrass us royally this time, aren’t you? I can’t see why that rude little man would want to meet Julia Fisher anyway. I’m surprised he’s even heard of her. I didn’t think he could read.”
“That’s enough, Regina,” Andrew brought her raving to a stop. “Frank and I grew up together. I know his station in life doesn’t meet your ridiculous standards, but he’s a good friend and, if you really think about it, his profession means more in the grand scheme of things that mine does, regardless of how much less money he might make. He’s coming to the wedding and you’ll treat him just as you would any of our guests. And that’s the end of it.”
The day finally arrived. The wedding went perfectly and Elizabeth and Thomas became The Grants. The entourage left the church and made its way to the reception. As the Appletons arrived at the country club, Regina nodded her approval. The grounds were lovely, the main banquet hall exquisite, and the decor perfect. She and Andrew made their way inside and greeted guests as they arrived.
Regina turned to find a well-dressed, petite little late-middle aged woman standing there in a lavender suit with a charming smile painted across her face.
“Yes, I’m Regina Appleton.”
“My name is Julia Fisher. I wanted to thank you for inviting me. I’ve received many letters from my readers over the years, but the one your daughter wrote was so sweet, I just couldn’t bring myself to refuse. She made a lovely bride today. You must be very proud. And the groom is quite a handsome young man as well.”
“Thank you.” Regina liked her new friend immediately. “Elizabeth will be so glad to finally meet you once she and Thomas arrive. She’s been reading your books since she was a little girl. To be honest, Miss Fisher, I didn’t quite approve of so young a girl reading about murder, of all things! But she’s turned out all right in the end.”
The bride and groom arrived and mingled with the guests. Elizabeth got to meet her literary hero and found Julia Fisher to be as charming as she had hoped.
“Did you ever expect to really solve murders, Miss Fisher? I mean, you started out as just a writer, but then you wound up catching real killers! What an amazing change!”
“I suppose I’ve just been lucky,” Fisher admitted. “Many writers have to struggle to come up with interesting mysteries. Mine just seem to pop up at the right times and provide plenty of fuel for my imagination’s fires.”
The reception proceeded as planned. Regina had not missed a single detail and was quite proud of the fruits of her efforts. Dinner was perfect, the musicians she had hired performed admirably, and everyone, bride and groom included, seemed to be having an excellent time. Julia Fisher sat, like a guest of honor, at the table of the bride’s family, and regaled Regina and the others with tales of crimes she had helped the police solve.
Across the room, Frank Dante was getting a headache. The violins were too shrill for his tastes and he found the overall atmosphere of the place to be stuffy. Coming from a large Italian-American family, Dante preferred his weddings more jubilant and less officious. The Chicken Dance was more to his liking than Brahms. Still, he had his reasons for having accepted the invitation and he kept those reasons firmly in mind as he munched his chicken, sipped his Coke, and kept an eye on the table around which were seated the bride’s parents and their companions. He watched as a small, white-haired woman excused herself from the table and walked in the direction of the restrooms. Dante was a people-watcher. He always had been. It was a major part of his personality and had served him well over the years.
Five minutes later, he watched the same woman return to her seat. He noticed the gloves on her hands. They matched her lavender suit precisely, but had not been there when she had left the table. She slipped them off, put them back in her bag, and returned her attention to her meal.
Five minutes later, the violins suddenly stopped. The attendees all looked up from their food. The chief waiter stood there with a pale face, shocked expression, and trembling hands. “Please!” he shouted out in a French accent, “Is any of you a doctor? I need a doctor at once!”
Andrew Appleton stood up and rushed over to the shaking man. Although working mostly as a chemist for a large pharmaceutical company, Andrew had indeed graduated from medical school. “What is it? Are you ill?”
“Not me,” said the chief waiter, “my assistant, Antonio!”
Andrew followed him into the men’s room and emerged a minute later, just as shaken as the man who had brought him there. He addressed the guests. “I’m sorry to say that something terrible has happened. A man is dead. The police are on their way.”
Elizabeth Grant began to cry. Thomas put his arm around her in consolation. Regina huffed and puffed, lamenting the ruination of her perfect day. Julia Fisher produced a notebook and pen from her handbag, her eyes narrowing in an expression of supreme interest. Frank Dante did not say a word. He just watched.
Most of the guests left once the local police had taken contact information. Elizabeth and Thomas departed, hoping to spend some time alone and make the most of what was left of their wedding day. Andrew and Regina stayed behind, as they had been the ones to book the affair. Julia Fisher refused to leave and took the homicide detective into another room, telling him she might have some important information. Frank Dante stepped out into the parking lot and lit one of his cheap cigars. He watched as the coroner’s men carried the body out. The sheet draped over the stretcher to conceal the corpse could not hide the tent made by the large kitchen knife that was still stuck in the dead man’s chest.
The bride and groom were permitted to leave on their honeymoon as there was no reason to suspect that either of them was in any way involved. The next morning’s papers had a generous amount of coverage of the Country Club Killing, as it was now being called. Andrew Appleton read the article and related the main details to Regina, who was still wearing a sour expression and moaning about her plans being blown to smithereens.
“Well, at least they had a memorable wedding day,” Andrew quipped. “It seems, Regina, that the murdered man’s name was Antonio Estefan. He was one of the waiters at the club for the last six months. The medical examiner seems to agree with what I thought as soon as I saw the poor fellow, that he died instantly when that knife went in. It says the man’s wife is trying to keep them from doing an autopsy, for religious reasons. I don’t suppose it matters much, as the cause of death would be obvious to almost anybody. Now if they can just figure out who did it, they’ll have everything squared away.”
The doorbell rang. Regina stood up to answer it, having had enough of Andrew’s talk of murder, hoping she wouldn’t find another reporter or policeman coming to ask questions for which she could provide no answers. When she opened the door, she wished it had been a reporter.
“Oh … it’s you.”
Andrew recognized the ice in Regina’s voice. “Come on in, Frank,” he called out, and he heard his old friend shuffle in.
“Listen, folks,” Dante said in his rough voice, “I just wanted to thank you both for inviting me out here. It was a lovely ceremony and a great dinner too … at least until what happened at the end. What a tragic thing. That poor kid was so young, had a wife home waiting for him. You never quite get used to things like that.”
“Well thank you for coming, Frank,” Regina said. She was trying her best not to be rude, trying to respect her husband’s wishes. “You’re always welcome here and I’m glad you enjoyed the wedding or most of it at least.”
“You know,” Dante went on, “I wish I’d had a chance to meet that lady, Julia Fisher. When I heard she was coming, I said to myself, ‘Frank, you’ve got to go and meet that writer.’ You see, my wife, well she loves Miss Fisher’s books, so I thought maybe I could get her to sign one for me, thought it’d make a nice surprise when the wife got home from visiting her sister. Oh well, I guess I missed my chance.”
“Nonsense, Frank,” Andrew piped up, despite Regina’s sudden burst of throat clearing, “Miss Fisher’s staying in town for another day and Regina and I have invited her over for dinner tonight. Why don’t you come too? Then you’ll get your chance to have her autograph your book and you’ll have a decent meal before you head back home.”
“Well,” said Dante as he took a cigar from his coat pocket, though he knew Regina would have a fit if he dared light it in her living room, “I just might take you up on that offer. What time?”
Andrew answered the door at five minutes before seven. Julia Fisher stood there smiling, with a bottle of wine in hand. “Good evening, Dr. Appleton, have you seen the six o’clock news?”
“No, Miss Fisher, I haven’t. Why?”
“I left the police department two hours ago before returning to my hotel to freshen up. They’ve made an arrest in the Estefan case.”
“You mean they’ve caught the murderer already? Who was it?”
“Would you believe it was the head waiter, the one who called out for a doctor and pretended to be so shocked at finding his friend’s body in the bathroom? His name is Raoul.”
“Miss Fisher, I know your reputation from all the talking my daughter’s done about your books over the years, although I confess I haven’t read them myself. Did you have anything to do with this case being solved so quickly?”
“I suppose you could say I did, Mr. Appleton. I accidentally witnessed something that turned out to be quite important. Why don’t we open this wine and I’ll tell you and Mrs. Appleton about it?”
Andrew, Regina, and Julia took to the living room chairs and sofa. Regina tried to corral them to the dinner table but Andrew insisted they wait for Frank Dante, who seemed to be running late. Regina snorted and agreed.
“When I first arrived at the reception,” Julia Fisher began to explain after her first sip of wine, “I accidentally, being a confused old lady, wandered into the kitchen, of all places! As timing would have it, I overheard a portion of an argument between Raoul and poor Mr. Estefan. The young waiter had come to this country under, shall we say, circumstances that were a tad short of being fully legal. It seems Raoul had somehow found out about this and was going to report Estefan’s status to the man in charge of the club’s staff. Estefan countered and told Raoul he had learned that Raoul had been, to put it politely, seeing the club president’s wife at inappropriate times. The argument grew a bit more heated as I left the kitchen and got back to finding the place I was supposed to be. Sometime after that, it seems, Raoul cornered the poor boy in the restroom and stabbed him to death with one of the kitchen knives. When poor Estefan was killed, I thought it my duty as a citizen to report what I had overheard to the detective who arrived on the scene after the body was found.”
“Very interesting, Miss Fisher,” Andrew said. “I suppose this will end up in one of your books now.”
“It would be wrong of me to not use any material that comes my way,” Julia laughed. “It was a bit dull though, in comparison to some of the other things I’ve seen in my time. I shall have to embellish it to some degree if I’m to get a decent tale out of it.”
“Well, congratulations all the same, Miss Fisher,” Regina added. “I’m sure Elizabeth will find it thrilling to be a part of one of your stories. What a wedding present!”
“Regina please,” Andrew blurted out, “a young man was killed yesterday! That’s hardly something to celebrate!”
The doorbell chimed, stopping Regina from verbally shooting back at her husband. As Andrew got up to answer it, Julia laughed softly, amused by the bickering between the Appletons.
“I’m really sorry I was late, ladies,” Dante said as he hung his coat on the back of his chair and sat down. “Hello, Miss Fisher, I’m Frank Dante. I’ve got to tell you, it’s a real pleasure meeting you. My wife, well, she couldn’t be here tonight but she’s a big fan of your work and I think she’s read every book you’ve ever written. I was hoping that, maybe, after we eat, well, if it’s not too much trouble, do you think you could sign a book for her? She’d get a real kick out of that.”
“I’d be delighted,” Julia said with a smile.
“You know, Frank,” Andrew said, trying to get Dante to calm down before Regina lost her temper, “Miss Fisher’s going to have to write another book now. She helped them solve the Estefan case this afternoon. The murderer is in police custody as we speak.”
“Is that so?” Dante smiled at Andrew’s news. “They didn’t waste any time on the case, did they? In the movies it usually takes them a week to figure out a whodunit.”
“Well, Mr. Dante,” Julia piped up, “things work a bit differently in the real world. Some murders are never solved and some are wrapped up in a matter of hours or days. Perhaps you ought to read some of my books, the ones your wife seems to find so interesting. You might enjoy a more realistic take on crime solving than you’ll find at the movies.”
Andrew chuckled at that, but Dante shot him a ‘keep your mouth shut’ look and spoke before his host could get a word out.
“Actually, Miss Fisher, my wife’s the big fan but I’ve flipped through a few of your books when she’s left them out on the coffee table or beside the bed.”
“I see,” Julia said, still flashing her sweet old lady smile. “And what did you think of them, Mr. Dante?”
“Actually, ma’am,” Dante said, reaching behind himself and poking around in his coat pockets, “that would be Lieutenant Dante.” He held up a badge. Los Angeles, Homicide.
“Bravo, Lieutenant!” Julia exclaimed, quite delighted. “I’d never have guessed you to be a policeman.”
“Yeah, I get a lot of that,” Dante admitted, putting his badge away. Now about those books of yours…”
“Yes,” Julia said, “now I’m even more interested to hear your opinion.”
“Well my wife’s been reading your work ever since your first novel,” Dante said. “That one really was a novel with a clever killer, a determined cop, and a twist ending; classic detective stuff. The problem with that kind of book is that most writers can come up with one plot like that but it’s always a hard act to follow. Unless you happen to be Agatha Christie, you tend to run out of ideas pretty soon. Then you came out with a second book, Destination: Death. It seems you’d stumbled across a real murder case while on vacation in Hawaii. I thought that was a pretty interesting coincidence. My wife kept buying your books and I kept flipping through them. And I started to see a pattern. You went to a family reunion and your old uncle dropped dead. It turned out your cousin was after his inheritance before he altered his will. You went to the circus and somebody cut the trapeze wire. Somebody bumped off a literary agent at a crime writers’ convention. On and on it went, Miss Fisher, for twenty-odd years, for book after bestselling book. Nobody’s that lucky, if stepping into puddles of blood everywhere you go can be called lucky.”
Regina Ackerman made a sudden, loud snorting sound, almost spitting her wine out as she saw where Dante was going with his speech.
“Frank! Whatever are you suggesting?”
“Regina,” Dante said, turning his head to face his hostess, “how many times have you and Andrew gone to dinner at that club of yours?”
“Dozens of times, perhaps three times a month. Why?”
“Had you ever seen Raoul before the wedding? What about Antonio Estefan?”
“Well no, but I just assumed they were newly hired. What does any of that matter? One is dead and one is in jail where he belongs.”
“No, Regina, he’s not in jail any longer. And he never did belong there. Excuse me a moment.” Dante took a cell phone out, pressed a few buttons, and spoke into it. “Detective Randall, will you please bring our other guests in?”
The dinner companions heard the front door. Ten seconds later, a man walked in, the police detective from the country club, followed by Raoul and Estefan.
Julia Fisher turned a ghostly white. She let out a little squeak of disbelief, and she tried to stand up. Detective Randall put his hands on her shoulders and gently but firmly suggested she remain seated.
“These two gentlemen,” Dante said to the shocked Julia and Regina, “deserve Oscars, don’t they? And so do you, Andrew!”
“Andrew!” Regina cried out, “You knew about this, this … charade? And why wasn’t I told about this? I still don’t understand what this is all about!”
“You weren’t told, dear,” Andrew spoke his mind loud and clear, “because you have too big a mouth! Now let Frank finish what he’s trying to say.”
Dante went on. “To be honest, I wasn’t planning on coming to Elizabeth and Thomas’s wedding. It’s not my kind of thing, especially if my wife’s not around, but when Andrew told me you were coming, Miss Fisher, I wouldn’t have stayed away for all the tea in China. After all those coincidences in your books, I had to find out if my little hunch was on the money. If I was right, I couldn’t take the chance of you being here among these dear old friends of mine if you really were what I thought you were. So I flew out here and made sure to get here a week early. Once I arrived, I called Andrew and we met for coffee without Regina around and I told him what I had in mind and he agreed to help me, even if it did put a little bump in the road to a perfect wedding day for his daughter, and I really appreciate the sacrifice.
“Why, I asked myself, would you, Miss Fisher, accept an invitation to a wedding between two people you’ve never seen before in your life? Being a successful writer, you must receive dozens of strange invitations. You couldn’t possibly accept them all, so why this one? Maybe, I decided, you needed some new material. That, if my original idea about what you are was right, could be a very bad thing. But it would work to your advantage, wouldn’t it? Doesn’t it always? If you go into a situation like this one, where you don’t really know anybody, you’d have no obvious motive if somebody turned up dead, would you? A murder could happen and you’d insert yourself into the investigation, using your reputation and celebrity as your ticket in, and pretty soon you’d have some more material for your books. But there would have to be a killing for that to happen.
“So, Miss Fisher, as soon as you got here, you set yourself to looking for somebody to kill and somebody else to take the blame for it. I had my suspicions, you see, from reading your books. It was too much to be coincidental. Nobody, unless they happen to really be in the business like I am, could possibly be present at the scenes of so many crimes. Knowing what you might be up to, I decided to bait the hook. It wasn’t really that hard. Raoul and Antonio here are not really waiters. They’re police officers who act in community theatre as a hobby. I knew you’d snoop around the country club looking for a victim and a potential frame, so I had them improvise their little argument when you wandered into the kitchen. Antonio knew you’d slip a drug into his coffee and so he knew not to drink it. It was Raoul who saw you take the kitchen knife he’d just put down, held with a napkin so it would have his prints and not yours, and hide it in your purse. It was also Raoul who slipped the note to me telling me what they’d seen. Once that was set, I just had to wait.
“I saw you notice Antonio going into the bathroom and I knew you’d take that as a sign that the drug had started to take effect and the poor fellow was beginning to feel sick. That was when you got up from the table and slipped those gloves out of your handbag. You excused yourself to use the ladies’ room and went into the men’s’ room instead. You took the knife, found Antonio passed out, or so you thought, and used the knife on him. But you missed out on knowing three important facts. First of all, Antonio was only pretending to be passed out. Second, he knew how to position his body so his chest would be the most convenient place for you to stick that knife. Third, his chest was well protected with a sheet of prosthetic skin, the kind used in horror movies, complete with pouches of fake blood.
“So you went in and did the deed and came out thinking you’d killed the poor guy. You calmly went back to your dinner, your conscience hardened by doing things like that dozens of times over the years, and you waited for somebody to find the body. Raoul went into the bathroom after I’d given him a signal, and came out with his brilliant act of shock. That was when Andrew here, who was in on the whole thing, followed Raoul in and pronounced Antonio dead on the spot. The police arrived, and they were in on it too, and had the body hauled away before poor Antonio got cramps from keeping up the carcass act for so long. Then Detective Randall waited for you to go to him, as we knew you would, with your eyewitness account of the little argument in the kitchen. We tested the coffee Antonio didn’t drink and found the tranquilizer you spiked it with, which, of course, matches the pills we found in your hotel room while you were out for breakfast this morning. I’m sorry, Miss Fisher, but the game is over. Next time you need material for one of your books, you’ll have to use your imagination. If that doesn’t work, maybe your cellmate will have a good story to share.”
Julia let the tears flow. “This isn’t fair. It’s entrapment! I know my rights!”
“Entrapment,” Dante said, “it might be, but all we really did was go through with a wedding and create an argument. Of all the people there, you’re the one that decided to go ahead and try to kill a man. You may have failed this time, but you still made the attempt. The drug you dropped into that coffee was real, even if Antonio didn’t drink it, and I don’t even have to mention the stabbing. Trying to kill someone is still a crime, even if you didn’t succeed. And, Miss Fisher, I think a judge will agree, in light of what we’ve found out here tonight, that it might be time to reopen some of those old cases you claim to have helped solve. I think there might be some innocent people in prison who’d like to go home and see their families, don’t you? Detective Randall, take her away.”
Julia Fisher was led out by Randall. Regina Appleton, still pale and shocked, was kind enough to invite Raoul and Antonio to sit down and help finish the dinner that had hardly been touched. Andrew Appleton looked over at his old friend.
“That was fun, Frank! If you ever need my help again, just give me a call!”
Dante got back to his plate. “Regina, I know you might never forgive me for all this, but it had to be done.”
“But you ruined my daughter’s wedding day!” Regina’s voice was getting shrill again. “It was supposed to be the best day of her life!”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Dante mumbled with a mouthful of mashed potatoes. “Once she got over the idea of her favorite writer being a serial killer, she was more than happy to help.”
“You mean she knew about this too?” Regina had gone from pale shock to crimson anger in an instant. “Was I the only one left in the dark?”
“Not at all,” Dante quipped after swallowing. “Miss Fisher didn’t have a clue until ten minutes ago either.”