by Elaine Faber
Enjoy this never before published cat mystery short story.
It was a dark and windy night–April, 1865. A man swathed in black, creeps down the hall, looks back, and then thrusts a derringer beneath the folds of his long dark cape. Perspiration dots his forehead as he approaches President Lincoln’s private box. His hand trembles as he turns the doorknob.
A black gloved hand inches through the door. Inside the theater, the audience laughs uproariously in the third act. The assassin takes careful aim at the President’s head and squeezes the trigger.
A haunting voice resonates through the shadowy corridors. “Tonight is April 15, 1865. All things are as they were then, except YOU ARE THERE!”
A stand of lights aimed at the actors re-enacting the popular 1953 television show crashes to the floor. “Cut! Cut!”
The director heaves his ponderous body from the director’s chair and glares at the lighting technician. Fourteen heads swivel toward the youth, stooping to pick up the lamp stand. “Sorry! Sorry! I caught my foot in the cord. Won’t happen again!” The youth glances nervously at the shattered glass spread across the floor and then at Byron, the director.
Byron checks his watch and strides toward the distinguished actor, playing Mr. Lincoln. “Time for lunch break, anyway.” He raises his hand. “Oh, Martin. I want to trade out your top hat. That one’s looking pretty shabby.” He strides toward the older distinguished actor seated in the theater box.
Martin stammers, “Oh…I don’t think…well, if you say so.,” He hands over his hat.
“Don’t worry. We’ll have another brought from Props right after lunch.” Byron claps. “One hour. We shoot at 2:20.”
Cast and crew, technicians, make-up and hairdressers move toward the outside studio door. Byron sets the hat on the edge of the buffet table and picks up his clipboard. He begins to make changes to the script.
The studio cats, Humphrey, a brown tabby and Marilyn, a long-haired cream, creep toward the unattended buffet table. Humphrey stands on his hind feet, twitching his nose toward a plate of gourmet salami and cheese balls. Beside the platter is a large roll of unsliced Rosette de Lyon ‘Fiore’ salami, aged to perfection in its white powdery casing. Humphrey reaches up a tentative claw, snags the edge of the plate. Salami and meatballs hit the floor. Splat!
“Scat!” Byron kneels and scoops up the scattered hors d’œuvres. He glances up just as a gloved hand grabs the top hat from the table and…wham!
. . .
“He’s coming around. Bring me more ice.” Martin holds a wet cloth to Byron’s head.
A crew member picks up the heavy salami roll.
“Leave it there. That’s what the perpetrator used to whack his head. There might be fingerprints.” Martin presses the ice pack to the rising lump on Byron’s head. “Someone call 911.”
“No. No police.” Byron struggles to sit up. “I’ll be fine. We don’t need the publicity. Sponsors don’t like bad press.”
A cast member speaks from the back of the studio. “Aren’t they shooting Columbo at the studio next door?”
Fourteen heads swivel toward the absurd suggestion. Never mind that Martin has suffered a real assault. Never mind that the weapon was an aged salami. Never mind that Columbo is a make believe detective. Fourteen heads nod in agreement. “Good idea. Give him a call.”
. . .
The conscripted detective, Columbo, fixes one eye on Byron, the other roves the room with wild abandon. “Your attacker is indubitably someone on the set. What happened?”
“I set Mr. Lincoln’s hat on the table and the next thing I know, I’m on the floor.”
“Can you describe the perpetrator who struck you with the alleged salami?” Columbo stares daggers at the crew.
“All I saw was a dark figure?maybe wearing a dark cape?”
The cast turns toward Charles, the John Wilkes Booth actor, whose chosen murder attire was, indeed, a black cape. “It wasn’t me,” Charles says. “I left my cape on the coat rack when I went to lunch. I was with Martin the entire time we were off the set. Tell him, Martin.”
Martin nods. Heads swivel back to Columbo. He casts his good eye over the crowd and shoves his hands in his raincoat pocket. “Did any of the suspects leave the cafeteria during the lunch hour?”
Charles glares at Melville, the actor who plays the part of Henry Rathbone, Mr. Lincoln’s theater companion on the night of the murder. “Melville auditioned for John Wilkes Booth’s role. He was mad at Byron because he didn’t get the part.” Charles points toward Melville, the newly accused. “I saw him leave the cafeteria.”
All eyes shift to Melville. “It wasn’t me.” Melville gestures toward Byron’s wife, the actress who plays the role of Lincoln’s wife, and also bears her name. “I met Mary at lunch to give her a down payment on her old Mercedes.”
Mary nods. Heads twist back to the rumpled detective. He scratches his head. “Let me cogitate a minute.” He snaps his fingers. A smile lights his eyes. “Where is Mr. Lincoln’s hat?”
Byron and the crew shrugs. “I’m thinking whoever struck Byron wasn’t after Byron, per se. They were after Mr. Lincoln’s hat.”
Fourteen actors turn questioning eyes toward Martin, who played Mr. Lincoln. He shifts from foot to foot. His face pinks up. “It wasn’t me. I’m an actor, not a hat fancier.”
The crew turns toward the back of the studio where Claudia, the pretty make-up artist, flaps her hands at the cats, reaching up her legs, noses a-twitch. “Shoo. Shoo! Get away from me.” Humphrey paws and sniffs her arm and utters a plaintive, mew-mew.
Fourteen mouths gasp in disbelief, recognizing the white powdery substance clinging to her sleeve as the fiore from the salami used against Byron’s noggin.
“Claudia! How could you!” Martin rushes toward her, then stops. He turns back to his wife, puts up his hands and shakes his head. “Mary, I’m sorry. She never meant a thing to me. You know I love only you, carrisima , mia amore …”
Claudia crumples to the floor, sobbing. “Martin! Darling! I couldn’t wait any longer for you to divorce Mary. I put another letter in your hat this morning, like every morning. But not a love letter this time. I said I’d tell the tabloids about us if you didn’t make good your promise. I couldn’t let Byron send your hat to Props. Someone could have found the note. I had to get the hat back. I did it for us, darling.”
“Will someone call the police?” The detective casts a wayward eye across the set, grinning at nobody in particular. “I’ve got a whole crew next door, sitting on their hands while they get time-and-a-half.” He doffs his hat and leaves the studio.
The police take Claudia away in handcuffs, arrested for assault with a deadly salami.
The crew gathers around the buffet table. Mary lifts a glass of wine. “To Claudia. If she’d only waited a few days. I filed for divorce last week.”
Fourteen heads nod. They fill their plates with cheese and salami and pour wine into plastic glasses with long stems.