Columbo: The Helter Skelter Murders

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9780312855376: Columbo: The Helter Skelter Murders

When the wife of a wealthy store owner and her lover are murdered, Columbo fears that another round of Manson murders is beginning, and despite findings that have already implicated a suspect, the detective knows the worst is yet to come

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Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

ONE
August 9, 1994
Khoury's
 
 
The name was on his store on Rodeo Drive, in gleaming stainless-steel block letters--
It was on his license plate--khoury. It was on labels securely affixed to ten thousand items of merchandise--imported by khoury. It was the center of the oval logo fired on the bottom of every plate, saucer, and cup of his line of chinaware--khoury & co. It was engraved on the bottoms of gold and silver cigarette lighters, compacts, pocket flasks, and so on, and on the backs of watches--A khoury design. It was on the labels sewn into his line of lingerie--the khoury collection. His motion-picture production company was Khoury & Associates.
Discriminating taste was his life: his life's work, his passion, his chief source of satisfaction. His very name was a synonym for chic. No, for more than that, for elegance.
The name inspired confidence in the people who bought at Khoury's. Since 1946, when his father established the store, the name had connoted urbane and pricey. As they said around down, you couldn't buy tchotchkes at Khoury's. Yussef père and now Yussef fils, father and son, traveled the world to find merchandise that would honor the name and appeal to their clientèle. They had intuitive eyes for quality. Anything bought at Khoury's was something exquisite, superior for its kind, whatever it was: something simple or something elaborate. A gift might not be what the recipient wanted or had any use for, but the name Khoury's on the box usually made up the deficiency.
The hour was six-thirty, and on an August evening the sun was still high and brilliant. Yussef Khoury could have driven into the store parking lot from the street behind, but he enjoyed driving past, looking at the palm-shaded building and at the stream of customers going in and coming out. His father had had the brick building painted white. The son had had the facade lightly sandblasted, knocking off about half the paint and leaving a dulled white and red surface that was a Beverly Hills landmark. No colored lights shone on the stainless-steel letters that spelled his name. No floodlights shone on the front of the store in the evening. People knew where Khoury's was. They would find it.
His car was a 1954 gull-wing silver Mercedes sports sedan, a classic automobile now worth many times what it had sold for when it was new. Its most distinguishing feature was the doors. Hinged at the center of the roof, they swung up. He drove around the corner and into the parking lot. A uniformed guard and a plainclothesman were always on duty in the lot, and both of them saluted as Khoury drove in. He put the car in the space with his name on it.
"Good evening, Mr. Khoury," said the plainclothesman, as Khoury popped the gull-wing open. "Did you have a good workout?"
"Good evening, Mike. I sure did. With a swim. Best exercise in the world, a swim. Good for the body, good for the mind."
Fifty-four years old, Yussef Khoury was a compact, muscular man of less than average height, with an olive complexion and small dark eyes. He was bald. In past years he had sometimes worn a toupee but hadn't done that for several years. He was dressed as was appropriate for Yussef Khoury--that is, to perfection, in a dark-blue suit tailored to fit him exactly, a monogrammed white shirt, a necktie in the regimental stripe of the Third Royal Welch Fusiliers, and black Gucci loafers. He wore a handsome star sapphire ring and a Khoury wristwatch.
Brushed-aluminum plaques affixed to the rear wall of the building marked two reserved parking places: his own and his wife's. Arlene Khoury's Silver Cloud was not there; and, since she allowed no one else to drive it, he could assume she had left for the day.
He entered the store through the rear entrance, which opened directly onto the main merchandising floor, the ground floor. He glanced around and, with his experience, saw that business was brisk. People were buying, not just looking.
The main floor had departments for jewelry, crystal, china, silver, prints, paintings, small sculpture, and bric-a-brac. Some articles were antiques, but most were of contemporary craftsmanship. Many were museum-quality reproductions. Although the store did not sell clothing, occasionally it would offer a Japanese kimono, a Chinese robe, or something of the like. A popular item was the authentic English "brolly," imported from London: an innovation introduced by Khoury fils in 1975, after his father died and could no longer pronounce it trivial. A new department, introduced only in 1987, sold a line a small appliances: digital clocks, telephones and digital telephone-answering machines, coffee makers, multiband radios, and tiny portable television sets--all of them outstanding examples of dramatic yet functional modern design, all of them bearing the Khoury name.
As he walked through the store, sales clerks glanced away from their customers for an instant to nod a greeting. Customers left the counters for a moment to speak to him. A few came to shake his hand and exchange pleasantries.
The store had no windows, so the light inside never varied. It had been carefully designed to display merchandise under the best possible tones--cooler light in the appliances section, warmer in the jewelry section, and so on. No music played. That, in Khoury's judgment, distracted customers from what they were here for: to see and buy. On the other hand, they could step into the Khoury Café and enjoy complimentary coffee or tea while they waited for someone or pondered a purchase. For those who wanted to smoke, there was a smoking lounge with quiet, concealed fans that exhausted the stench and did not allow it to escape into the store.
"Hi, Joe!"
Yussef Khoury suggested his friends call him Joe Damon Christopher strode across the carpet with outstretched hand. His new film, Iron Man, was playing to great reviews and big box office; and his equity in it was going to earn him five or six million dollars, minimum. He was of course a big fellow, like the heroes he played, blond and ruddy faced, with a cleft chin and sensual blue eyes.
Christopher pumped Khoury's hand, then tapped the box he was carrying. "From upstairs," he said with a wide, suggestive grin. "Damned good thing it comes from Khoury's, or she'd never even consider wearing it."
He had been to the second-floor lingerie shop. His box was wrapped in the distinctive Khoury aluminum-colored paper and tied with the Khoury ribbon: rich metallic blue. Wherever a package like that went, people immediately recognized it as something from Khoury's.
"I'm glad you found something you like," said Khoury, smiling warmly. "I wish you good luck with it."
"Oh, it will do the trick," said Christopher. "A little argument. This will do the trick."
Christopher slapped Khoury's arm and walked on. He would never have come into the store, probably, if not for the lingerie shop opened in 1975; and he was probably correct in guessing that his wife--if in fact the gift was for his wife--would be far more likely to wear the boldly revealing item in that box because it came from Khoury's. It was a fact that women would wear lingerie from Khoury's that they might have considered cheap and demeaning if it had come from anywhere else.
Khoury had wanted to do the lingerie collection for years before his father died. The old man would never allow it, arguing that it would surely offend some of their lady customers. The son understood otherwise. He had given the second floor over to a group of boutiques, some of them operated by concessionaries--for example, the perfume and cosmetics boutique and the chocolate shop. Placed discreetly out of the sight of those who did not want to shop for scanty undies there, the Khoury Collection boutique was a busy profit center.
Khoury could have taken an elevator up, but he preferred to climb the broad stairway to the second floor, then a narrower stairway to the third.
The third floor was the office floor, where he and his wife, Arlene, occupied executive officers: has a suite, hers a simpler office. All the rest of the administrative functions required for a major retail operation were on the third floor also.
As he walked along the long corridor between the stairs and his suite, the door to his wife's office opened. Her secretary--a dark-haired, attractive woman of forty-six--came out. She was intent on using her keys to lock the office and did not notice him until he was upon her.
"Oh--Hello, Joe," she said, a bit startled.
"Hello, Puss," he said. Her name was Cathy Murphy, but she liked the nickname Puss, so that's what he called her. "How's everything?"
She smiled. "It's a little difficult, you know."
"I know," he said. "Hang in there. We'll do something about it."
He had hired her to work in his own office, as a second secretary. His wife hadn't liked it, hadn't liked an attractive woman with an intriguing past working for him. Arlene had first demanded he send her back to the sales floor, where she had worked before, them had agreed to her remaining on the third floor, provided she would be her secretary, not one of his. Arlene didn't like her, just the same, and seemed to take every chance she could find to humiliate her. It was a situation that would have to be remedied, sooner or later, one way or another.
Khoury knew all about Cathy Murphy. She had spent several years of her life in prison. In fact, she had learned her secretarial skills in the women's reformatory at Fontera. Twenty-five years ago, she had been one of the Manson girls, though not one of those involved in the Tate-LaBianca murders. She had gone to prison for something else entirely. Charlie Manson had bestowed a nickname on her, as he did on most of the girls who clung to him as his "Family": Puss Dogood.
She had dark-brown hair which she still wore long and straight, a style she had adopted when she was a...well, a hippie: the word that came to Joe Khoury's mind. She was an attractive woman with regular features and a good figure. She wore no makeup, ever. At work she dressed modestly in blouses and skirts, but he had encountered her in a shopping mall one evening and learned that off duty she dressed like an earth child. He also knew that from time to time she slipped out to smoke a cigarette on the loading dock.
"We'll straighten it out, Puss," he said. "Just hang in and be as patient as you can."
"Thank you, Joe. Your assurance is what makes it possible. Otherwise--"
He held up a hand, stopping her.
"No. Don't think of quitting, Puss. Don't worry, we'll straighten things out."
Cathy Murphy--Puss Dogood--nodded and walked toward the stairs. She stopped and turned. "Joe..." She grinned. "If you want to help me get even with her again sometime, just say the word."
Khoury smiled but said nothing and went on into his office.
His secretary was not at her desk in outer office. She had gone home apparently. But Kimberly was waiting for him. She was sitting on the leather-upholstered couch, smoking a cigarette and reading Vanity Fair.
The name she used was Kimberly Dana. She was twenty-nine years old, a tall, slender, athletic young woman, strikingly beautiful: a blonde with near-perfect facial features--accented nevertheless with makeup so skillfully applied that even Khoury could not always be entirely sure it was there. She was an archetypal California beach girl, so much so that she played women's beach volleyball on television and had a small following of fans.
"You know, if you didn't smoke those damned cigarettes you would be utterly perfect," he said to her.
She crushed the cigarette in the ashtray on the table in front of the couch and pulled a breath spray from her handbag. "Only the second one today," she said. "I got bored waiting for you."
"Was Arlene still here when you came in?" he asked.
"No, dear. I waited until the Silver Cloud was out of the parking lot before I came upstairs. Eleanor was gone. The flower child was still here, though."
"Yes. I saw her as I came in. It's hard to believe the double life she leads--working here until six-thirty as the loyal, honest secretary, then going out into the mountains and spending the night with her...With whatever you call it. Her commune."
"Her tribe," said Kimberly.
"Well, let's not knock it. Her tribe is going to be very useful to us."
"What we need is in the car. Locked in the trunk."
"No everything," said Yussef.
He went to a Chinese-style lacquered black cabinet and opened it, exposing a large safe. He worked the combination and swung back the heavy steel door. From inside the safe he withdrew two oval steel batons about seven inches long. They were hollow and perforated with a dozen or so half-inch holes that fit fingertips and afforded a secure grip. Hinged at one end, the two halves of the batons could swing apart.
He handed one to Kimberly. Using both hands, she seized the baton at the end opposite the hinge and pulled the two halves apart. The two halves were in face the halves of a steel sheath for a six-inch blade. It was a singularly deadly weapon, called a Bali-Song. With the handles closed, the Bali-Song was a heavy bludgeon. With them fully open, that is, swung back against each other, it was a conventional knife. With the handles swung out halfway, to a 90° angle with the blade, an attacker could grip a Bali-Song with both hands and thrust forward with the force of two arms.
It was maybe the most expensive knife in the world. Yussef had never considered offering them for sale in the store, but he had bought half a dozen of them because he admired the design, and he had given several to friends. He had explained to Kimberly when he first showed her a Bali-Song that the Philippines, where they originated, had outlawed them; it was a crime to own one there.
She had smiled and commented, "Well, Joe, you always have the best."
"They will lend a certain elegance to a dirty job," he had said.
She dropped both of them into her handbag before they left the office.
 
Copyright ©1994 by MCA Publishing Rights, a Division of MCA, Inc.

From Kirkus Reviews:

Peter Falk meets Charles Manson, right? Well, not exactly: The rumpled detective isn't really played by the TV actor, though he sure looks and sounds like him, and he meets Manson only once, briefly--not counting the time back in 1969 when (we're told) he was part of the original Manson family investigation. Unlike Lt. Columbo's hardcover debut (Columbo: The Grassy Knoll, 1993), this cheatingly titled case doesn't reopen a real-life crime and doesn't involve the Manson family except in the most peripheral sense: as a cover for a very ordinary copycat murder timed for the silver anniversary of Sharon Tate's death. Taking advantage of the fact that Cathy Murphy--baptized Puss Dogood when she threw in with Manson 25 years ago--is his hated wife Arlene's secretary, LA boutique king Yussef Khoury plots with his own secretary/lover Kimberly Dana to kill Arlene and her paramour and pin the blame on poor Puss. Luckily for the Manson class of '69, the inimitable Columbo is on the scene, imperturbably writing out his grocery list, trying once again to qualify with his own .38, mumbling about taking scuba lessons, and incidentally nailing the conspirators while providing his faithful TV audience whatever thrills they can get from cheering ``hotter, hotter'' (his inquiries about a Harry Winston choker supposedly stolen from Arlene's nightstand) and ``colder, colder'' (an interminable subplot involving Khoury's film production company) en route to a windup without a single new surprise and an epilogue cribbed from Dragnet. Colder, Lieutenant. Ice cold. -- Copyright ©1994, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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