STEELE BARS AND WHITE LACE
By: Lisa Ann Richardson and Patrick G.
E-mail: (Richardson) email@example.com
First printed: More Red Holt Steele #10 & #11
Summary: Jim Rockford and Colombo team up with Laura and Remington to to cear Murphy of murder charges, only to have Remington end up being accused of being the White Lace Slasher.
Disclaimer: This “Remington Steele” story is not-for-profit and is purely for entertainment purposes. The author and this site do not own the characters and are in no way affiliated with “Remington Steele,” the actors, their agents, the producers, MTM Productions, the NBC Television Network or any station or network carrying the show in syndication, or anyone in the industry.
(By: Patrick G.)
“This is Jim Rockford. At the tone, leave your name and address, I’ll get back to you.” BEEP.
“Jim, this is Murphy. When I got back to my hotel, the police were waiting for me. They think I killed Sandy. You’re my one phone call. Help.”
Lt. Dennis Becker of the Los Angeles Police Department was irritated. Not that that was an unusual thing for him, especially when his “old buddy” Jim Rock-ford was around. Jim had a way of showing up at the worst times and asking the wrong questions when the wrong people were around.
And now was definitely the wrong time.
The so-called “White Lace Slasher” had been causing an uproar all over California for months. Everyone from the press to the mayor’s office had been putting pressure on the department to catch the killer.
And they finally had.
Murphy Michaels. A private eye for the Remington Steele agency. His prints had been found at the last victim’s apartment and on the murder weapon. Testing had confirmed the semen traces in the victim were his. Everyone was satisfied that they had the killer.
“Come on, Dennis,” Jim said. “I’ve known Murphy for years. There’s no way he killed those girls.”
“Look, Jimbo, I’m sorry the guy turned out to be a friend of yours. But you admitted yourself that, until the other day, you hadn’t seen him in five years. People change.”
“Not that much, they don’t. Murphy’s always been a good guy. A little hot tempered maybe, but not a killer.”
Dennis brushed by his friend and into the hall. As Rockford followed him out, he said, “I’m sorry, Jim, but there’s nothing I can do. We’ve got evidence that puts him at the scene of the crime.”
“Well, what about a motive?” Rockford demanded.
“He’s a serial killer! Serial killers don’t have normal motives! They do it because they like it!”
Rockford pointed a finger at Becker. “I’m telling you, Dennis, don’t close this case. Murphy Michaels is not the White Lace Slasher!” And without waiting for a reply, he turned and stalked out.
Two hours later, Jim Rock-ford found himself standing out-side the offices of the Remington Steele detective agency. As he looked through the glass doors at the plush surroundings, he shook his head.
*How the hell does he do it?* He thought. *What makes them so different from me? I can barely afford the payments on my trailer.*
As he stepped through the doors, an attractive, dark haired woman behind a big oak desk asked, “Can I help you?”
A glance at her nameplate told him her name was Berniece Fox. He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a business card. Handing it to her, he said, “My name’s Jim Rockford. I’m a fellow P.I. Is Mr. Steele avail-able?”
As he spoke, another dark haired woman, this one more attractive than the first, stepped out of one of the inner office doors and approached him.
“How are you Mr. Rockford? I’m Laura Holt, Mr. Steele’s associate. I’m afraid he’s not available at the moment. But perhaps I can help you?”
He shook her hand and smiled. “Maybe you can. Is there somewhere we can talk?”
Laura lead him into a large office and took a seat behind the desk.
As Rockford made himself comfortable, the office door opened again and in walked Remington Steele.
Elegant, handsome, with a strong air of pleasant confidence, he strolled into the room, cheerfully saying hello to Laura. Then, he turned to glance at Rockford. He froze. His mouth opened, but no words came out. He shut it and arched an eyebrow.
Rockford leaned back in his chair and smiled. “I’ll be damned. It’s you. What the hell are you doing running a detective agency? And where did you get a corny name like Remington Steele?”
Laura looked back and forth from Rockford to Steele. "I take it you two know each other?"
Steele grinned and walked over to the window. Looking out, he asked, "What's it been, Jim, six years? Seven?"
Rockford nodded. "About that." He looked at Laura. "At the time, he was calling himself Roger Thornhill. I thought the name sounded familiar, but didn't think anything of it, then. A few months later 'North By Northwest' came on TV."
Steele laughed slightly and explained to Laura, "MGM, 1959. Cary Grant plays an adman named Roger Thornhill, who's mistaken for a federal Intelligence agent. I thought it was appropriate at the time. But you obviously didn't come up here to talk about old times. What can we do for you?"
Rockford exhaled loudly and his face turned grim. "I'm afraid I have some bad news for you. Murphy Michaels is in jail. The police think he's the White Lace Slasher."
Laura leaped to her feet. "What?!"
"They arrested him last night. It should make the papers today."
"But how could they..." Laura's voice trailed off and Steele placed a hand on her shoulder. "Tell us what happened."
"Me and Murphy are old fishing buddies. His dad and mine are both truckers. They used to drive together. I think I was the reason that Murphy became a P.I. I hadn't seen him in about five years, until last week. He came down and we spent the week fishing. Last night, he left the pier around four. He said he was meeting someone. He got back to his hotel room around ten, the police we're waiting for him. A girl in the same hotel had been murdered by the Slasher. Murphy's prints we're on the knife that killed her. The police can prove that he'd had intercourse with her that night."
Laura dropped back into her chair and stared at him. She couldn't think of anything to say, couldn't believe that this was happening. Not Murphy.
"Any idea where he went after he left you?" Steele asked.
"No details. They wouldn't let me talk to him. I think it's pretty safe to assume that he was with the girl at some point. I've sent for my attorney, Beth Davenport. She should be able to get in and question him."
Laura's brain started to turn. "Have they found anything to tie him to any of the other murders?"
Jim shook his head. "Not that I know of. But they might not have told me if they did."
Laura started toward the door. "Well they'll damn sure tell me!"
Beth Davenport was a good attorney. She'd gotten Rockford out of dozens of legal scrapes. And she certainly had a rapport with the LAPD. But this case was different. It was going to turn into a media circus, and she wasn't sure how to deal with that.
She sat in the little grey room that the police used for interrogations. Murphy was telling her he was innocent. She believed him. Maybe.
"You were with Ms. Colbert that evening?"
"Yes. I admit that. I was with her from about 4:30 until a quarter of 8. Then I went down to dinner."
"You spent that time in her room?"
"What were you doing?"
Beth smiled. "Mr. Michaels, you are in prison on a murder charge. Now is not the time to be discrete. What were you doing?"
"We were making love."
"How long had you known Ms. Colbert?"
"About five days. Maybe six."
"Had you been intimate with her before last night?"
"How many times?"
"Two or three."
"Why didn't she go down to dinner with you?"
"We had just argued. I kind of stormed out."
"What were you arguing about?"
Murphy blushed. "It's kind of private. I had drifted off to sleep after we made love and apparently I said another woman's name when she tried to wake me."
"I see. The knife that was used to kill her belonged to you."
"Yeah, it was my fishing knife. I must have left it on her dresser."
Beth tapped her fingers on the cold iron table. "Murphy, where we're you on May 22nd?"
After Laura had dashed out of the office, Steele paced back and forth, trying to think. Rockford watched him for a while, wondering who this man really was. "So what do I call you, Roger or Remington?"
"Steele will do fine." He stopped and looked at Rockford for a minute. "Look, Jim, when we worked together before, with that kid, what was his name..?"
"Brockleman. Richie Brock-leman."
"Yeah right, that's him. Anyway, when we worked together, you seemed like a good guy. Do you want to , uhh, team up on this one?"
Rockford smiled. "That's what I was figuring on. Maybe I could pick up some pointers from a world class detective, like you."
Steele grinned nervously. "Uhh, yeah."
"So where do you want to start?"
Steele shrugged his shoulders. "The hotel?"
Lt. Chapman gestured to the attractive young woman in front of his desk. "Please have a seat, Ms. Holt. What can I do for you?"
Laura sat down and forced herself to smile. "I'm an associate of Murphy Michaels. I'm from the Remington Steele Agency. I'd like to know what evidence you have against him."
"And why do you think I'd give that information to you, Ms. Holt?"
"Because you have the wrong man. And the sooner I can prove that, the sooner you can go about catching the real Slasher."
Chapman suppressed a laugh. "Ms. Holt, there have been eight murders by the White Lace Slasher. Mr. Michaels can not provide a decent alibi for any of them."
"Could you? There must be thousands of men in the immediate area who can't provide alibis for those nights."
"But none of them had had sex with Shannon Colbert within two hours of her death. Murphy Michaels had. And he killed her with his own knife."
Laura stood up. "He didn't kill her! Doesn't it strike you as odd that there were no semen traces at the first seven murders?"
"Not particularly. Serial killers tend to progress. It's not uncommon for one to alter his habits. Hell, maybe Shannon was the first one to turn him on!"
"Lieutenant, can I see Murphy?"
"I'm afraid not. Only his attorney."
Laura looked at Chapman and smiled. "Lieutenant, you're an ass. I'm going to catch the real Slasher, and when I do, I'm going to make sure the press knows you refused to pursue the case properly."
"Ms. Holt, I'll make allowances for the fact that it's your friend who's in jail for this, but if you make any irresponsible public statements to the press, such as implying that the Slasher is still out there, I'll have your P.I. license yanked so fast it'll make your head spin. Now get out of my office."
Down the corridor, a tall, gaunt man watched Laura leave Chapman's office and storm out of the building. He smiled to himself. Just as he had imagined her. Beautiful, graceful, full of fire. But the clothes concealed to much. They should have been tighter, more revealing.
He wondered what she would look like in lingerie. He tried to picture her long legs, tan and bare. Her breasts, full and firm, a dark thatch of hair showing through silk panties, embroidered with white lace.
The hotel had proved useless. the only thing that Rockford and Steele were able to establish was that Murphy had indeed been seeing Ms. Colbert over the past several days. No one had seen anyone else near the murder seen that night.
Laura and Beth had spent the day digging through agency records, trying to find Murphy an alibi for at least one of the murders. That task had proved fruitless as well.
Now the four of them sat around a table at Sabatino's, an Italian restaurant in west Hollywood. Only Steele seemed to be enjoying his dinner. The others picked listlessly at their food as they discussed the case.
"The thing that really strikes me as odd about the whole thing," Jim said, "is that all seven murders happened on days that Murphy couldn't provide an alibi for. I got the impression from talking to him last week, that Murphy works a lot of overtime."
Laura nodded. "He puts in a lot of hours. Usually 60 - 70 a week."
"Then isn't it stretching coincidence a little bit far, to take seven random dates and have all of them fall on days when he wasn't working?"
Steele stopped eating. "You're not implying that he really...?"
"No. Of course not. But this whole thing is starting to look like a very deliberate frame up."
Laura thought about it for a minute. "But why kill so many women if the goal was to frame Murphy? Wouldn't just one do the trick?"
Steele was about to answer when he noticed everyone was staring at him. Or rather, just behind him. He turned and looked over his left shoulder at the disheveled specimen standing there. The man was wearing an old wrinkled trench coat over an even older grey suit. He didn't seem to have combed his hair when he had woken up that morning and he had a strange twinkle in his eye.
"Can I help you?" Steele asked.
"I'm sorry, sir," the man said. "I didn't want to interrupt your conversation. I just had a couple of questions."
"Who are you?" Laura asked.
"Oh, I'm sorry ma'am," he said and reached into his coat pocket, pulling out a badge. "Lieutenant Columbo, homicide."
Steele grinned. "Please, Lieutenant, pull up a chair. I take it you'd like to discuss the White Lace killings?"
"Yes, sir, that's it. That's just what I'd like to talk about. Because I tell you, this thing is really starting to bug me. It's one of those cases where you just don't know where to turn."
Rockford looked at him. "I take it you don't believe Murphy's the killer."
"No, sir, I don't."
"Then why is he in jail?"
"Well, sir, I didn't make that particular arrest, and the other officers involved seem to think they have the right man. But there are a couple of little things that bother me."
"Like what?" Beth asked.
"Well, the fact that he knew the girl is a big one in my book. He doesn't seem to have had any connection to the first six victims. But this one, he was dating. Now serial killers generally don't switch from killing strangers to killing people they know, unless..."
"Unless what, Lieutenant?" Beth was leaning forward now, hanging on Columbo's every word.
"Well, unless the earlier murders are a smoke screen. See, there's been a couple of cases where a man has wanted to kill his wife or girlfriend, but he realizes that he'd be the logical prime suspect. So he kills several other women first, establishing a serial killer pattern. That way, when he kills his wife, the police have no real reason to examine him as a prime suspect. But that couldn't apply here. Mr. Michaels didn't know Ms. Colbert that long. The first six killings happened before they even met."
Laura looked him in the eye. "Well, what do you think, Lieutenant?"
"I don't know, ma’am. Your theory about an elaborate frame up is interesting, but I'm not sure how well it holds up. For one thing, your earlier objection makes sense. Why kill that many people for a frame up? It's a lot riskier when a single killing would work just as well. And I've never heard of a serial killer who tried to put his crimes off on someone else. It doesn't fit the normal profile. One thought that did occur to me was that Mr. Michaels did kill Ms. Colbert, but not the others. That it was a copy cat killing. But there were details from the earlier murders that hadn't been revealed publicly, and those details match this killing as well. So that doesn't fit either. No, anyway I look at it, I can't see Mr. Michaels as the killer."
Columbo stood up and fumbled around in his pocket. Producing a small stack of business cards he handed one to everyone at the table. "I know you folks are going to be poking around in this case. If you find out anything, or just think of a new angle, I'd appreciate you giving me a call." He started to walk away from the table, then paused and turned back. "Just one more thing. How many people knew where Mr. Michaels was taking his vacation?"
Laura raised an eyebrow. "I don't know, Lieutenant. But I'll find out a give you a call."
"Thank you, ma’am."
As Columbo walked out of the room, Rockford leaned back in his chair. "I may have an answer to one question. But I don't think you're going to like it."
Steele looked over at him. "Which question is that?"
"Why kill all those women in order to frame Murphy?"
"Why?" Laura asked.
"Maybe Murphy's not the real target."
Steele frowned. "I don't think I'm following you."
Rockford leaned forward. "Well, if Murphy just got charged with one murder, it wouldn't be news. But as the Slasher, he made the front page of every paper in California. And in every article, he was identified as an employee of the Remington Steele agency. How do you thank that's going to affect your business? What if your agency is the real target?"
Laura looked astonished. "You think someone could have killed seven women just to make our agency look bad?"
Rockford nodded. "Scary, isn't it?"
(By: Lisa Ann Richardson)
Laura put her fork down, pondering a few minutes before looking at the others. Her voice deadly earnest, Laura's amber eyes nailed Jim Rockford to his chair.
"Mr. Rockford, I don't know whether to hope your theory is right or wrong. I don't want to say what's scarier...Murphy wrongly accused of multiple murders or the mind of a psycho who would conceive this as a way of shedding some bad light on us."
Remington Steele cleared his throat. "At any rate, we've got to come up with something, if nothing else than to get Murphy out of jail as soon as possible."
Laura nodded before turning her attention back to Rockford and Beth Davenport. "Would there be anyway to post bail for Murphy, Miss Davenport?"
Beth held up her hand. "Please, it's Beth; and I'll check, but don't get your hopes up. The police are absolutely certain they have their man and the judge will keep that in mind when I go to him for a paper....but I will try."
Laura nodded, apparently disappointed. Rockford cleared his throat and stood up. "Meanwhile, Beth and I will head over to LAPD and see if we can talk to Murphy.
Fred held the door open for his two bosses as they climbed into the back of the limo. Closing the door, he looked around the parking lot before walking around to the driver's side. If there was one thing he had learned from working for Remington Steele Investigations, it was that someone was always after his employers. Satisfied that everything was normal, Fred walked around and got in the car. The black limo drove away, the California sun glinting off the roof.
Remington stared at Laura, wishing he could will away the worried scowl on that lovely face. She didn't need this, the Agency didn't need this, and he didn't even want to dwell on how Murphy must be feeling, being locked up like an animal for a crime he didn't commit. At least there was one thing he could try and put to right.
Laura jumped slightly at the light pressure on her shoulder. Steele shrugged. "Sorry. Didn't mean to startle you."
Laura took a deep breath and shook her head. "No, it's all right. I...I'm just trying to figure out a way to get Murphy off the hook." She smiled ruefully. "Sorry I'm such bad company right now."
Remington Steele's blue eyes twinkled merrily. "That, my dear Miss Holt, is one thing you will never be. However," he sobered quickly, "You're right to be worried. I don't think Beth will be able to get Murphy out on bail. Beth Davenport and Jim Rockford are good, but they're not miracle workers and from what Jim told me the first time I met him, the police like him about as much as they like Remington Steele Investigations."
Laura turned to face him. "Mr. Steele, something isn't right. All of those women killed on days when we can't account for Murphy and the latest victim is a fling of Murphy's. Yet she was the only one a knife was used on...Murphy's knife. The rest were killed by having their necks broken."
"So? I'm not sure where this is going."
"So...Mr. Steele, as a man who has undoubtedly had many encounters with various law enforcement agencies around the world, from the other side of the tracks, what would you say was going through the police's minds?"
Steele stared at Laura, unsure of what she was asking or implying. "Are you asking if I've ever gotten away with murder Laura?" God, his voice sounded cold, even to him. He instantly regretted his words as he saw the hurt look on her face; so quickly did it pass, he thought he imagined it. He looked down, mentally kicking himself for not hearing her out.
Laura spoke quietly. "That's not what I was asking. I just need to hear it from another perspective. I'm the detective, but you've been outside the law. Obviously you'd have to know how a cop thinks to get around him, whether it's stealing or murder."
Steele sighed, covering her deceptively delicate hand with his own. "I'm sorry Laura."
Laura shrugged. "I should have clarified what I meant. But--"
Taking an uncomfortable breath, Steele rested his hand under his chin. "If you want to know what I think, from the other end of the law's perspective...I agree with much of what you're saying. I think the police are desperate to find someone, anyone, to pin this crime on, because, like you said, citizens are not too crazy to hear about some bloody loony running around like a modern day Jack the Ripper. But, other that that, I'd say we're dealing with someone who works in very elaborate ways. Do you know the planning it would take to find out someone's schedule and account for every bloody minute? It's been used for jewels heists, but speaking from experience on that one, it could take up to a full year of planning, at the least."
Laura nodded. "I was thinking somewhat along those lines. But the only people who would know Murphy's schedule that well are Berniece, you, and I."
Steele didn't miss the fact that she wasn't even questioning whether he could kill, but whatever Laura's reason, he was grateful of that fact. Clearing his throat, he asked, "So what now?"
Laura leaned forward. "Back to the office Fred." Leaning back into her seat, she stared at the mystery man who had assumed her fictional creation. "It's time to stop procrastinating and find something."
"At your service Miss Holt."
Columbo stepped into the barricaded hotel room, examining his surroundings. There was still a fair amount of blood all over the headboard of the bed and splotches of it dried on the nightstand. From the looks of it, Sandy Colbert had been murdered in a very messy way. Columbo scratched his head absent-mindedly.
Something was definitely not right about this entire situation. Michaels was being set up, he was sure of it. Everything was too neat, too easy. There was a lot he had not told Murphy Michaels' friends. Too many facts that just didn't seem to fit.
Columbo sat on the bed, taking a slow, lazy puff of his cigar. Why was Sandy Colbert the only victim whose neck had not been broken before her throat was slit? The other victims had had their necks broken. And then there was the fact that Sandy Colbert had been stabbed multipletimes. The police detectives who had arrested Michaels didn't seem to think anything of this, pointing out maybe Ms. Colbert had been the first victim not to be taken by surprise. That one had really bothered Columbo, because chances were, having been intimate with Murphy Michaels, she probably would have been easier to take by surprise.
The only common denominator between Colbert's murder and the other victims had been the white lace bra and panties the killer had put on her. Columbo walked around, carefully examining for anything the boys may have missed. Running his hand behind the dresser, he felt something brush against his finger tips.
Taking out his pocket flashlight, Columbo peered into the crack between the dresser and the wall. He saw a small scrap of paper. He moved the dresser, just a little. Grabbing the paper, Columbo was about to read it when he heard the knob on the door turn.
A dignified voice spoke. "Columbo, I thought it would be you."
Columbo grinned good-naturedly. "Hello Judge Wargrave. How ya doin'. I'd have thought you'd be fishing in the South Seas by now."
Wargrave chuckled. "Not until the end of the month, Columbo. Then it's sailing the South Seas looking for sharks to fish."
"Well Judge, it's like the misses always says...'ya gotta do what ya love.'"
Wargrave grinned, his hazel eyes brimming with irascible humor."How true it is. Now," his face turned serious. "I understand you're out to prove Michaels isn't the White Lace Slasher."
Columbo shrugged. "Well sir, I just feel like something isn't right. A lot of things don't click."
Wargrave nodded. "This thing's about to turn into a media circus. Shame. From what I've seen, Steele thinks very highly of all his employees. I just want to see justice done, whoever did it." He leaned closer to Columbo. "From what I understand, a fellow colleague of mine has an appointment with Michael's lawyer to see if bail would be an option."
Columbo puffed on his cigar thoughtfully. "Well, I just gotta double-check on these boys. You know how the green ones are."
At that, Matthew Wargrave laughed uproariously. "Still trying to teach 'em how to do it right, I see. Well Columbo, it's been nice seeing you. I only dropped in here to see if the rumor was true. Have to be going now. I have an appointment for golf."
The two men shook hands and Columbo watched as Wargrave exited.
Pulling out the note he had retrieved, Columbo's eyebrows shot up as he read the curved, flowing handwriting.
SandyPS: Sorry about overreacting...it's not like we're married.>
Columbo was now absolutely convinced the boys had the wrong man. He wondered why no one had taken the note in as evidence. He shook his head. Probably they hadn't looked very hard after finding Sandy Colbert's body covered in blood on the bed. He stared at the note. It would have been easy for someone to call up pretending to be Remington Steele and finding out if Ms. Colbert was alone. It would have been just as easy for someone to get into the room. Someone had definitely set Murphy Michaels up. The only question was why. A thoughtful look on his face, Columbo stuffed the note back into his trenchcoat, and walked quickly out of the room, leaving an acrid trail of cheap cigar smoke behind.
Remington and Laura sat in her office, going through her date book, painstakingly trying to find anything that would get Murphy off the hook. Laura looked up, frustrated. "This is impossible!"
Remington sat back in his chair, running his hands through his ebony hair. "It does seem as if this bloody thing is indeed fruitless."
"All of those killings took place on the nights when Murphy was doing legwork and no one can account for his whereabouts."
Remington gazed at Laura thoughtfully. "What about anyone who might have seen him around when he was doing the legwork?"
Laura shook her head. "Doubtful. Murphy's good. If he didn't want to be noticed, he wouldn't have been noticed. I'm beginning to think Jim Rockford's on to something."
They continued to look through Laura's files, growing more dejected by the moment. Laura looked as though she were ready to put her fist through the wall. Both nearly jumped as Berniece's voice was heard through Laura's intercom. "Laura, some police detective is here to see you. Columbo, I think he said his name was."
Laura hit her intercom. "Thanks Berniece. We'll be out in a minute."
Steele cleared his throat. "Laura, do you think you could talk to Columbo alone?"
"Why? Feeling a little jumpy around cops, are we?" The slight smile on her face took the sting out of her comment. Steele smirked. "Laura, you cut me to the quick. I was merely going to call Jim and see if Beth got that bail order."
"Sure...but still, go ahead. I'm dying to know."
Steele smiled gently, taking Laura's hand. "Laura, we'll get Murphy out of this and you will find something. I'll be in the office."
Laura allowed herself the small feeling of affection that spread through her as she watched him go into his office. After his door shut, she got up from her desk, taking a deep breath. Maybe Columbo had found something they had all missed.
"Judge Ciretto, is there any way I can convince you to let Murphy Michaels out on bail?"
"Miss Davenport, I'm sorry, but unless there is substantial proofthe police department could be wrong, I can't. If it were anything but serial killings, possibly; but this has the public scared."
"What if we could prove that it was possible that Mr. Michaels didn't commit those murders?"
Judge Anthony Ciretto smiled apologetically at the woman in front of his desk. "Miss Davenport, Murphy Michaels is innocent until proven guilty, and I'm going to see to it that his right to that is protected. He's only accused as of now. Unfortunately, what we have here is also a PR problem. I won't lie about that. The police needed to catch someone to make citizens feel safe. However, I am sworn to protect Mr. Michaels' rights as a citizen at the same time. But I can't issue bail. I'm sorry."
Beth Davenport nodded resignedly. "Well, thank you for your time sir."
Rockford was waiting for her outside the judge's chambers. Fromthe look on Beth's face, he didn't even have to ask. Beth shook her head. Rockford nodded. "Well, I guess we're back to square one."
Ciretto sat back in his office chair and picked up the daily paper. The Los Angeles Times' banner headline for the day read: Steele Defends Employee’s Innocence. There was a picture of Steele and the young woman, Laura Holt, who always seemed to accompany him everywhere. From what Ciretto understood, from a fellow colleague who had hired Remington Steele Investigations, she was Steele's right hand and his messenger, handling most of his clients.
Ciretto shook his head and frowned as he studied the police reports on the seven young women who had been killed so far.
Laura stepped into the lobby, looking for the slightly rumpled LAPD detective. Berniece silently pointed to a chair in the corner. There was Columbo, puffing away on a cigar. Laura's nose wrinkled slightly at the noxious fumes he seemed to be emitting. Clearing her throat, she walked over and offered her hand. "Detective Columbo, you wanted to see me?"
Columbo shook her hand, covering it with his other one in a fatherly way. Coming from other people, Laura may have been slightly offended by the gesture. However, coming from Columbo, it seemed right.
Columbo's eyes twinkled in that funny, absent-minded way. "Ma'am, I was wondering if I might have a few minutes of yours and Mr. Steele's time."
Laura smiled. "Of course. But I'm afraid Mr. Steele is on the phone with Jim Rockford trying to find out about the situation with Murphy."
Columbo nodded. "That's all right ma'am. I just need to ask some questions and then I'll be leaving. The misses says I gotta learn when to shut up, but I say you're never going to find out what you need unless you just keep digging."
More than slightly amused, Laura managed to hide her grin. "Let's step into my office, Columbo."
Sitting down at her desk, Laura apologized for the clutter and mess. Columbo waved her apologies away. "Ma'am, you oughta see my desk at the station. I'm surprised the Misses hasn't come down and cleaned it herself."
Laura sat back in her chair. "You had some questions?"
Columbo smiled. "Yes ma'am. First of all, who knew where Murphy was taking his vacation?"
Laura licked her upper lip thoughtfully. "As far as we know,myself, Mr. Steele, Berniece, and his family."
Columbo stroked his chin. "Miss Holt, could he have told anyone else? You know? Small talk with clients."
Laura shrugged. "I suppose. Oh, something else. Berniece mentioned that on the days Murphy wasn't here, someone would call looking for him and wouldn't bother to leave a message. She didn't think anything of it at the time, figuring it might have been one of the clients. She said it was a different voice each time. Any other questions?"
Columbo grinned. "None that I can think of Miss Holt. Thank you for your time."
His merriment was contagious. "No problem Columbo."
Right before he walked out the door, Columbo turned around. "Oh, just one more thing...did anyone from the office call Mr. Michaels at his hotel room at any time...you, Miss Foxe...Mr. Steele?"
Laura suddenly grew suspicious at his wording. Keeping her face carefully devoid of any reaction, she said, "Not that I'm aware of, but I'll ask the others. Any reason?"
Columbo shrugged absently. "None that I can think of ma'am. I just have to ask all the questions. Have a nice day, Miss Holt."
"Nothing. The judge wouldn't offer bail?"
Remington Steele listened silently to Jim's explanation.
"All right mate. I know Beth did her best. Like you said we're back to square one. And they're still only letting Beth see Murphy? Okay. I'll give you a call later. Bye."
Steele sat back in his chair. He could hear Laura and Columbo in talking in her office. He knew she was going to be upset. Remington didn't like seeing Laura upset, but he couldn't blame her. Hell, Murphy had done nothing. Murphy could never be a murderer. Still, maybe he could do something to take Laura's mind off of things, at least for a little while. He grinned. He really loved seeing her all dressed up, that pretty school-girlish face turned elegant, like Cinderella.
Pulling out a sheet of paper, he wrote a short note.
Leaving the note on the desk, he put on his blazer. The least he could do was help Laura and Murphy by doing some snooping of his own. And being Remington Steele should be able to get him into places most people couldn't.
Walking out the office, he waved to Berniece, saying something about going to a movie.
The tall, gaunt figure watched as Steele exited the building. He smiled. He knew she wasn't alone. But she would be soon...very soon.
Beth Davenport was getting frustrated with everyone right aboutnow. Ever since it had come out that the White Lace Killer was Murphy Michaels, a PI for the famous Remington Steele Investigations, this whole thing was turning into a media circus that could rival Barnum & Bailey's.
"They look like vultures circling for the kill, don't they?"
Beth looked at Jim Rockford, a sour expression on her face. "You know something Jim? You really are a master of the understatement. Let's drive around one more time."
Rockford smirked. "Maybe, but it's true. Look at 'em. Waiting for you to arrive like a pack of hyenas. Beth, what are Murphy's chances?"
Beth Davenport pursed her lips. "You want the truth?"
"His chances are next to nil. Murphy Michaels has no alibi and a lot of these cops would love to nail Remington Steele Investigations to the wall for making them look like idiots from time to time. The factthat it was his knife they found is a big piece of evidence. And then Murphy admits to sleeping with that girl."
"So he slept with her. So what? The semen samples--"
"I know, I know." Beth threw her hands in the air. "Jim, I'm going to tell you up front. Something funny is going on here. The cops are just doing their job, but they're missing something. All the clues are there and if I were an outside observer, like the cops, I'd say Murphy Michaels was the killer. It fits, but something doesn't look quite right, you know what I mean? And what about that police detective Columbo? If I didn't know any better, I'd say he was on our side." She drove into the parking space.
"Yeah, that's got my gut churning too. Murphy's an old friend. I'm gonna get him out of this."
Beth grinned. "What about Remington Steele and Laura Holt?"
Jim Rockford laughed. "They've got the same goal. Murphy's their friend and that's all that matters. Laura Holt. She's a little wildcat, isn't she?"
"Jim, if I didn't know you better, I'd say you were trying to play matchmaker for the guy."
Rockford snickered as they got out of the car. "Play matchmaker for Roger? I don't even know the guy's real name. Besides, I don't have too. Did you see the way he looks at that girl?"
Beth and Rockford walked across the street to the police station as reporters ran over to them, pelting Beth with a barrage of questions.
"Miss Davenport, as Mr. Michaels' attorney, what are his chances?"
"Miss Davenport, is it true Mr. Michaels had relations with the last victim Sandy Colbert?"
"Mr. Rockford, is it true you're helping the Remington Steele Agency to clear Murphy Michaels?"
"Miss Davenport, how does Remington Steele feel about his employee's arrest?"
"Miss Davenport, what about the two female employees of--"
"No comment, no comment, no comment, no comment, NO COMMENT!"
Beth Davenport and Jim Rockford pushed through the crowd of reporters into the police station, the doors thankfully closing on thecommotion.
"Miss Davenport, Mr. Rockford--"
"Now what?" Jim Rockford turned around to be greeted by Columbo. "Oh, it's you Lieutenant." Beth, however, was in no mood to be civil. "What is it, Columbo," she snapped.
Columbo took a puff of his cigar. "Sorry to bother you Miss Davenport. You too Mr. Rockford. I just have what might be good news."
Beth sighed. "Lieutenant, I sure as hell could use it."
"Well ma'am, I had my boys do some more digging because I found it very odd that we only found prints on Miss Colbert's clothes and that was the first time a fishing knife had been used. I also did some asking around. Apparently, from what a few eyewitnesses say, Miss Colbert and Mr. Michaels were pretty cozy on their own."
Beth was rapidly losing patience. "Columbo, if you've got something to say, say it. I haven't got all day."
"Well ma'am, all those other women...that conversation I overheard with you two, Mr. Steele, and Miss Holt--all those murders committed on days when Mr. Michaels wasn't at work. I agree with Miss Holt that it's probably a frame up."
"Columbo!" Even Rockford was losing patience.
"Yes sir. Sorry. I think Michaels is being framed, but not just to throw him in jail. I mean, in all honesty, aside from being employed by Remington Steele investigations, what notoriety does he have?" Columbo puffed on his cigar again, blowing out the cheap acrid smoke. "Miss Davenport, Mr. Rockford, would it be unlikely of me to suggest that someone's trying awfully hard to make Remington Steele Investigations look bad?"
Beth exchanged a secret look with Rockford. "You're suggesting a grudge, then?"
Columbo shrugged. "Ma'am, I've been doing this a long time and I've seen it all. It's possible, very possible."
Beth crossed her arms. "Lieutenant, why are you so interested in clearing Murphy? What's your stake in all this?"
"Ma'am, it's just my old police instincts telling me something isn't right, because it would take someone with a real mind for pulling off something this big, a real pro at deceit."
Rockford stared at Columbo. "Let's go Lieutenant. I'm going to need police authority. I want a look at those women's bodies."
"I figured you would sir."
He could almost close his eyes and see the impish expression on her face, the expression reserved solely for Remington Steele...ah, such a shame those lovely brown eyes would have to close forever very shortly, but it would be worth it. The thrill of this game was well worth it.
"All right Columbo, I want to see those bodies."
Columbo smiled in that easy way. "Yes sir, Mr. Rockford, but before we do that, I have something to show you." He pulled the note out of his pocket. Rockford let out a low whistle. "So apparently, someone knew Sandy Colbert was alone."
Columbo shrugged. "Well at rate sir, we know she was indeed alone and received a call which could have been from Mr. Steele but was quite possibly from someone who wanted to see if she was alone. And then there was the fact that Miss Colbert's body looked like she had been in a struggle."
Jim Rockford took an aggravated breath. "Columbo, get to the point!"
Columbo shrugged. "Well sir, wouldn't you agree that if Murphy Michaels was the killer, there wouldn't have been a struggle? I mean, witnesses say they were pretty cozy and he admits they slept together."
Rockford decided to hedge a bet. "Columbo, would it be possible to get Murphy out on bail based on these facts?"
The police detective grinned, waving the note. "Sir, it's already been taken care of. I went to Judge Ciretto myself and explained why it's very possible we have the wrong man. Mr. Michaels is due to be released in an hour."
Jim shook his hand. "Thanks. Now, can I see those bodies."
"Yes sir, right through here. Ed'll be waiting to show you what you want to see."
As Jim Rockford started to walk in, Columbo gabbed his arm. "Oh, just one more thing, Mr. Rockford...you wouldn't happen to know where I could find Mr. Steele and his associate? I'd like to break the good news."
Rockford thought for a second. "I think over lunch he said something about Le Bistro. I think Laura Holt's with him."
"Thank you, sir."
Fred opened the limo door for Laura, offering his hand as hehelped her into the car. "You look lovely, Miss Holt."
"Thank you Fred." Laura hesitated before getting in, leaning on the door. "Say Fred, you've worked for the Agency for a while now, right?"
Fred smiled. "Yes ma'am. Some of the most interesting years of my life."
Laura's thoughtful expression turned into a grin. "Would that be before or after Mr. Steele arrived?"
"Well Miss Holt, you must admit, our lives have been more eventful since Mr. Steele came into them."
"Yes Fred, they have. Now," Laura leaned closer to the chauffeur. "What's with all the mystery? Where are you taking me and where's Mr. Steele?"
Fred sobered, remembering what Steele had told him. "Miss Holt, I've got strict orders from Mr. Steele. I'm to tell you nothing except to assure you from Mr. Steele personally that it's nothing illegal. Now if you would please get in, as we're going to be late if we don't leave now."
Fred helped a very stunned Laura into the limo. Closing the door, he grinned. Mr. Steele had been right about Miss Holt asking questions, and Fred was rather enjoying playing messenger to this blooming topsy-turvy romance between his two bosses.
Laura sat in the back of the limo, still slightly stunned by Fred practically ordering her into the car. She had hired the man, for crying out loud! And where was Mr. Steele? She hadn't seen him for the better part of the day. Just a note left on his desk that Fred would pick her up at 7:30 p.m., dress after-five. *What the hell? I'm going to find out sooner or later. Might as well sit back and relax. Hopefully he hasn't gotten involved in something too shady. With all the trouble Murphy's in right now, I don't think I could handle it.*
Laura stepped out of the limo, nodding her thanks to Fred, who lifted his cap in acknowledgment as he watched Laura go inside the restaurant.
Laura approached the maitre'd. "I'm supposed to meet Remington Steele."
The maitre'd studied the petite, dark-eyed young woman in front ofhim before breaking into a smile. "Ah, Miss Holt! Mr. Steele has been expecting you. Follow me please."
Laura followed the maitre'd, growing more curious by the moment.
Remington Steele smiled, rising from his seat to greet the lovely vision in blue. He walked to Laura, taking her in his arms and planting a gentle kiss on her forehead. "Laura, you look absolutely beautiful."
He smiled at the slight blush which crept onto her cheeks.
"Thanks. You look pretty handsome yourself." She ran her hand along the lapel of his jacket. "Now, what's going on and where were you this afternoon? And don't tell me at the movies."
She sat down in the chair he pulled out for her. Sitting across from her, he smiled. "Laura, why must you always assume I have ulterior motives? Actually, I was snooping around wherever Murphy could have been on those unaccounted for days. I regret to say I could find nothing. And...I asked you here to help get your mind off of Murphy, at least for a few hours." He grasped her hand across the table. "You look like you needed it. Besides," Remington's hand moved to cup Laura's face. "I don't like to see the strong, independent Laura I know doubt her own abilities."
Laura's brown eyes met those blue ones that entranced her so much.
"My abilities may not get Murphy out of this one. We don't even know *what* to look for. And what if your friend Rockford is right? What if someone is trying to make the Agency look bad? Murphy's looking at a murder rap and some nut is still out there leaving a trail of dead women. And---oh! I want to scream, I'm so frustrated!" Laura leaned back in her chair in defeat.
"Laura--Laura, look at me." Remington Steele lifted her chin toward him. "We both know Murphy is not the White Lace Slasher. I also know that you are one hell of a detective. If anyone can solve this, you can. Besides," Steele smiled that adorably crooked grin, "your student is willing to do anything to help. After all, I have had a superior instructor."
Laura smiled, just a little. "Yeah, well, you're turning into a pretty damn good detective yourself." She raised her eyes playfully. "Not as good as me of course, but still pretty good."
Remington grinned, pleased that she was finally relaxing. He prodded a little more. "Anything else?"
Laura sipped some of her champagne. "They won't even let me see him. Only his lawyer--Rockford's friend Beth Davenport."
An evil grin spread across Steele's face. "You know Laura, I once broke out---"
"Don't you dare!" Laura's voice shrilled as she started to get up. "Laura, sit down. I was only joking!"
Laura lowered herself. Steele was staring at, or rather, behind her, strangely. Turning around to follow his gaze, she saw a rather lost man in a wrinkled trenchcoat.
Columbo waved and Steele made a gesture to come over. Laura looked at Steele pointedly. "Maybe he's found something we missed." Remington merely shrugged as Columbo walked up.
"Sir. Mr. Steele and Miss--"
"Holt. Laura Holt."
Columbo smiled in that funny way. "That's right. I'm sorry ma'am. I'm not very good with names. My wife says I'd forget my own name if she wasn't around."
Steele cleared his throat. "Anything we can help you with, Detective?"
Columbo grinned. "Well actually sir, forgive me for interrupting your dinner. I can see you and Miss Holt were just about to eat, but I was wondering about something.
Laura smiled. "And what would that be, Detective?"
"Well ma'am, you two are pretty good detectives, better than me, I'd imagine."
Steele's eyebrow raised at the compliment. "And?"
"And, well, speaking as a detective, well sir, Miss Holt, I just can't figure why if Mr. Michaels is the White Lace Slasher, he would have slept with Miss Colbert." Columbo shrugged. "I mean, I'm no expert on serial killers, but I figure most of 'em don't change their habits like that."
Laura barely controlled her anger. "I agree, Lieutenant, but apparently the officers who took Murphy in do not agree. Maybe you should explain that theory to them. They might listen to one of their own."
"Laura." Steele's voice held a quiet command. "It's all right. Sorry Lieutenant. It's just we know Murphy is innocent and your policeforce has been slightly less than helpful."
Columbo smiled in that funny way. "I have some good news concerning that, Mr. Steele. Mr. Michaels was let out today. Due to some things I found out, it's almost certain Mr. Michaels is not the murderer.
Laura and Remington exchanged glances of sheer relief. Laura smiled. "Thanks Columbo. We've been digging and kept reaching dead ends everywhere. I'm just glad Murphy's been let off the hook."
Remington Steele sat back in his chair, his grin echoing Laura's. "We'll have to get Murphy and celebrate at the office. Our thanks Columbo...and we'll help find the real murderer, if you need it." He didn't miss the affectionate approval in Laura's eyes.
Columbo grinned. "Well Mr. Steele, we may just take you up on that offer. Oh, there's just one more thing...I talked to Mr. Rockford and well, I think all of you are under the impression that someone's trying to embarrass your agency, Mr. Steele. Now, that's a very interesting theory...a very interesting theory." Columbo took a puff of his cigar.
Laura and Steele exchanged glances. Laura cleared her throat. "And what do you think of our theory Columbo?"
Steele hid a grin as he recognized Laura's cat-and-mouse tone. Quite a lady, as he had found out from personal experience.
Columbo grinned. "It's possible Miss Holt. Very possible. Now Mr. Steele, where were you on all those nights?"
Steele's eyes narrowed. "If I didn't know better, Columbo, I'd say you suspected me."
Columbo waved his hands. "Oh no Mr. Steele! I don't think the most famous detective in LA would commit murder!"
"He wouldn't!" Laura snapped.
Columbo gave her an odd look before smiling at both of them. "Well, you two are in the middle of dinner and the Misses is waiting for me, so I'd better be going. Have a good evening Mr. Steele, Miss Holt." He walked off towards the exit.
Steele was surprised to see Laura staring at him intently, her forehead faintly creased with worry. "Laura? What's wrong?"
"I hope you have alibis for the nights all those women were killed."
A veil fell over Remington Steele's face. "Oh, and why is thatLaura?"
Laura almost shivered at the ice in his cultured voice, but her stare didn't waver. "Because I've been a detective long enough to recognize going in for the kill. He asked about you earlier. He thinksyou're the White Lace Slasher."
"And what of you, eh Laura? Do you think I could kill?" Those blue eyes bored straight into Laura's soul.
Her eyes never leaving his face, Laura took his hand. "You may be a thief and a con, and I may know next to nothing about you, but you didn't kill those women."
Steele's free hand covered hers, a crooked grin smiling gently at her. "Thank you, Miss Holt."
Her only answer was a soft squeeze to her hand.
He watched as Steele gently cupped her face with his hand. His eyes traveled over her face, memorizing each feature: the soft curve of the cheeks, the slightly snubbed nose, her dark, almond-shaped eyes, her full mouth. His eyes wandered over her tiny shoulders and up her long, slender neck. So young and fresh looking, almost virginal--except for that temper.
He laughed softly to himself, watching as they got up from the table. The skirt of the slip of a cocktail dress she wore swished softly around her slender legs as she walked. He wondered what she wore underneath that little blue dress. He smiled. Probably some silky little thing in a pastel color--pink, baby blue, or pale green, perhaps. Wrong, all wrong. Something lighter would look much better on that slender body. That slow smile spread into an evil grin. White was the perfect color for Laura Holt. He was sure Remington Steele would agree.
Murphy came out to the police lobby looking like someone who had just been through several wars and back. Or so was the estimation of Beth Davenport. "Welcome back to the outside world, Michaels."
A wry smirk spread across Murphy's face. "That's what it feelslike. Why am I being released? What did you guys find?"
Beth shrugged. "It wasn't us. Detective Columbo of the police department found a note and began adding up the rest of what you said and managed to pretty much prove you had been set up. Guess his badge got him where we couldn't go."
"Well, whatever. I'm just thrilled to no longer be a member of America's Most Wanted. Do they have any idea who the real killer is?"
"None, but they're gonna burn the midnight oil to find him. Oh, by the way, there are tons of reporters out there. Be discreet and don't make any outrageous statements or your boss will kill me."
Murphy laughed uproariously.
Both turned to see Jim Rockford practically running towards them. "Jim, what's wrong?"
Not even bothering with an explanation, Rockford grabbed Murphy's arm and demanded, "Do you know where Laura Holt lives?"
Rockford suddenly looked very worried. "C'mon! I just got a look at those women's bodies. We've got to get to her!"
He smiled. Soon...so very soon. It was time. Such a beautiful slender neck. One which, no doubt, Remington Steele's hands had been around many times. A neck which Steele had undoubtedly caressed softly and gently as he kissed its owner's mouth. Maybe Steele's lips had felt the soft skin on her neck. Maybe Steele had felt the soft skin of her entire body, with its slender frame...too perfect. Steele was making this too easy. Time to add a new dimension to the game. He laughed, proud of his own handiwork. Tonight, Mr. Steele and his lovely associate Laura Holt would become pawns in a masterpiece of murder.
Laura opened the door of her house and walked in, Steele following behind her. Through the dim lamplight, he could see the somewhat shy smile on her face, her dimples barely visible. Touching his arm, she said, "Thank you. I really did have a wonderful time tonight."
Steele grinned as he watched her sit down on the couch, take off her heels, and tuck her legs up under her. "That was my intention... although I think Columbo's news has a lot to do with your jubilant mood."
Laura breathed a sigh of relief and nodded happily. "At the very least, Murphy's off the hook for right now."
"And I'm on it."
Laura looked sharply at Mr. Steele. Her wording was careful. "I didn't say that. I just said Columbo probably has suspicions...unfoundedones, but suspicions, nonetheless."
Remington shrugged. "What-ever. Anyway," his voice suddenlyturned richly seductive. "Let's just relax for the rest of the evening, shall we?" Moving with panther-like stealth, he sat down next to her, his arm draped around her. Laura could feel the humid warmth of his breath, so close was his face to hers. Running her hand along the lapel of his jacket, she grinned. "Why Mr. Steele, I thought we were relaxing."
"Oh, I had something more on the order of this in mind."
His lips brushed hers seductively as his hands moved up her neck to rest under her chin. The kiss was soft, gentle, lasting an eternity. Steele almost broke the kiss in surprise as he felt Laura's mouth open beneath his. The kiss suddenly became more intimate. As Remington Steele's hand began to slide from her neck down to her arm towards her hip, Laura pulled out of the kiss, flushed and breathing heavily. Steele's own body temperature felt like it was going to shoot through the roof.
"Uhhh...we...uh," Laura stammered, trying to regain some measure of control. "I...there's a movie coming on in a few minutes. We can watch it, if you want."
Steele was grateful for her attempt at safe conversation. The emotions this woman churned up in him were unsettling, even frightening...frighteningly wonder-ous. "A movie?"
Laura smiled. "I've seen it and it's pretty funny. History of the World, Part I." Her grin widened. "Annotation?"
"Why Laura, too easy. Mel Brooks, Gregory Hines, Madeline Kahn. Warner Brothers, 1979."
Laura shrugged. "Look, help yourself to anything in the kitchen.I'm going to change into something more comfortable---sweat pants and a T-shirt, Mr. Steele," she added wryly, seeing his eyebrow raise slightly.
Steele let out a dramatic sigh as he walked to the kitchen. "Ah well, hope springs eternal."
Throwing him a snide look over her shoulder, Laura walked into her bedroom, locking the door behind her.
Laura slipped out of her dress and let it slide to the floor, her thoughts still on the man who now sat in her living room. Who was hereally? What were some of the things he had done? Places he had been? What was his relationship with Daniel Chalmers, Felicia? Why did he make her head spin? That question was the one that bothered her the most. The man she euphemistically called Remington Steele could make her heart race just by turning those incredible blue eyes in her direction. And when that accented voice said her name, the syllables seemed to flow from his tongue like quicksilver. She knew what he wanted from her, but she was also well aware that he could get that from any woman. Why did he keep chasing after her?
Standing clad only in pale peach lingerie, Laura leaned over to get a pair of sweat pants and a T-shirt from the dresser. She grinned at the thought of watching a movie with Mr. Steele. Ever since he had walked into her life, she had learned more about the cinema than any person should. She thought she heard something outside. Opening the blinds, she gazed out into the darkness of her backyard. Nothing.
Laura gasped as a pair of hands held her fast at the waist. Stunned, she tried to turn around, but his hands were too strong as they slid up her arms and rested on her neck. *I locked the door. There was no way he picked the lock. He wouldn't do that! He wouldn't invade---something's wrong!* Something was wrong. She felt something silky and saw a piece of white silk out of the corner of her eye. *Oh, my God!*
"Mr. Stee---" The silk quickly tightened and Laura's world went black. Those hands quickly removed her lingerie and replaced them withwhite lace.
Remington heard Laura scream his name at the top of her lungs. He bolted from her kitchen to the bedroom and tried to open the door, which was locked. "Damn it! Open the door! Laura, are you all right?! Open the door!"
Still no answer. He stepped back and slammed into the door, forcing it open. The force of his push knocked him to the ground as he saw a tall, thin figure in black run out. Debating between chasing thefigure and finding Laura, his concern for her outweighed any coherent thoughts. "Laura?"
He saw her slim leg peeking out from the other side of her bed. What he saw stopped him in his tracks. "Oh, dear Lord, Laura!"
Laura Holt lay sprawled on her side, one arm curved above her. A piece of white silk was wrapped around her neck. Her slender, petiteframe was devoid of any clothing, save a pair of white lace panties and bra. Her normally sun-kissed features were pale. Steele stooped over her and was relieved to find a pulse, faint, but definitely there.
"Oh, dear God, Laura...come on, snap out of it."
Steele loosened the white silk scarf and held it up. Still holding the scarf for later evidence, he lifted Laura into his arms. He heard sirens outside. *The police? How did they--?*
His mind did not even get a chance to process the thought as thepolice forced open Laura's door and ran in to see him holding the unconscious young woman, the white silk scarf still in his hand. The man now known as Remington Steele suddenly felt like a caged animal.
"Hold right there, Mr. Steele!"
Steele tried protesting, "Look, there's been a mistake, but--"
"No mistake." A man stepped forward. "Mr. Steele, you're holdingher, she's unconscious and the weapon's in your hand, with your fingerprints on it." Turning to a young officer, he nodded. "Cuff him. It looks like the White Lace Slasher is none other than the great detective Remington Steele." Detective McGuire smirked. "Who tried to frame his own employee so he could kill another one."
Steele, still holding Laura, shouted, "I didn't touch her. I was in her kitchen, I heard her scream, I forced the door and a man, tall, thin, ran out and I found her here. Why would I try to kill Laura Holt, for God's sake?"
"Maybe because she looks really nice in a pair of white lace panties."
Enraged by this bloody cop's presumption of his relationship withLaura, Steele set Laura down and wanted to do nothing more than punch the living daylights out of McGuire.
He never got the chance. Arms held him and cuffed him as he watched one of McGuire's men radio for an ambulance. Despite his anger, Steele was scared. Laura's breathing was barely causing any movement of her diaphragm. Staring at McGuire, he asked through gritted teeth, "Is she all right?"
McGuire stopped taking Laura's pulse for a second. "What's the matter? Afraid she'll wake up and positively identify you? Get ready for a long vacation Steele."
Remington's eyes never left Laura's face.
Rockford drove like a bat out of hell, taking Beth and Murphy onone of the wildest rides of their lives. "Where to now?"
Murphy held onto the armrest for dear life. "Turn left at this light. Jim, what the hell is the deal with those women's bodies?"
He barely turned around to look at both of them. His voice hard, he said, "You oughta see them. It's a pattern. All of 'em are slender, petite, dark haired and dark eyed, and were professional women...like Laura Holt."
Beth was getting nervous. "Jim, I'm not following."
"Look, one way to embarrass the Agency would be to have an employee of Remington Steele Investigations be a mass murderer, but having the head of the Agency as one would close it down... especially if he kills a female employee whom he's been seeing outside the office."
"Jim, you're not saying---"
"Damn it, Beth! I'm saying he's being set up and Laura Holt's being set up for murder! Where to now, Murphy?"
"Down this street, take a left, fourth house on from the corner onthe right. And hurry! I hope to God you're wrong and Laura's all right!"
They pulled up in time to see Laura Holt's limp body being lifted onto a stretcher. "Too late!"
Murphy jumped out of the car before it stopped and ran up to the paramedics. "How is she? Is she going to be okay?"
The paramedic didn't even look at Murphy as he checked Laura's pulse. "Should be. Her breathing's pretty shallow right now, though. Look buddy, she's still unconscious...we've got to get her to the hospital so we can see if he did any other damage to her body."
"The cops are saying Remington Steele attempted to murder this girl."
Murphy turned to Jim, who nodded and began to push his way through the crowd of neighbors. Beth ran up to Murphy and pushed him in the same direction.
"Don't worry, I'll go with her. Find out what the hell is going on!"
In no mood to be polite, Murphy almost knocked over Laura's neighbors trying to get inside her house. A cop tried to stop him. "Hold it there bud."
"I'm Laura's friend Murphy Michaels. I gotta talk to Steele."
"Right. The guy they thought was the Slasher. Turns out your boss was trying to frame you."
"Look, enough with the small talk! I want in there. I'm with Rockford."
"All right already. Can't do no harm."
Murphy walked into the house to see Steele in cuffs, Jim Rockford trying to reason with a cop Murphy knew by name, Eddie McGuire. He also couldn't stand the guy. He was forever looking for a reason to flaunt his badge. He heard Jim arguing with McGuire.
"Look, just get Columbo here. I'm telling you, if Steele says some guy in black ran out of here, then there was some guy in black. I know this guy! He's not a killer."
"Look Rockford, keep your nose out of police investigations! And anyway, I told ya, Columbo's on his way."
Murphy made his way over to Steele, who looked exceeding.... concerned? It was an emotion Murphy had never associated with the conman. Steele looked at him, the worry visible in his eyes.
"How is she? Is she alive? Is she all right?"
Murphy nodded. "From what the paramedic told me, she'll be okay. She was still unconscious when they took her. Beth went with them." His voice turned hard. "Now you wanna tell me what the hell is going on?"
Steele opened his mouth to give a reply, but a commotion was heard as Columbo walked in with some men. Scratching his head, he asked, "Now what's going on?"
McGuire spoke up. "Sir, we're about to take Remington Steele downtown and book him for the attempted murder of Laura Holt, as well as bring him up on charges as the White Lace Slasher."
Rockford pushed himself between the two cops. "Do you have any proof or are you just looking really hard for somebody to save LAPD's face?"
Giving him a contemptuous look, McGuire stated, "We found him holding her, she was unconscious, she was in a pair of white lace panties and a bra, and he was holding a white silk scarf. Whadda ya want? CBS' Wide World of Sports to come in and do instant replay?"
"Listen you sonofa---"
"Well, sir," Columbo interceded before things got ugly. "You have to admit, that's pretty tough evidence. I also did some checking and found out that Mr. Steele can't account for his whereabouts on the days those women were killed---and those were the same days Mr. Michaels over there was out of the office."
Murphy looked at Steele. The guy was a smooth talking crook and full of more blarney than Ireland, but as much as he distrusted Steele, he could almost swear that Steele wouldn't do something this cold-blooded, especially to Laura. In fact, Steele seemed decidedly unconcerned with his predicament, his blue eyes clouded with fear over the condition of the delicate brunette who was now lying in a hospital bed.
So wrapped up in his study of Steele was Murphy, he didn't hear Columbo's question. "Huh?"
Columbo grinned. "I said, why don't you and Mr. Rockford come down to the station and we'll take your statements."
Steele spoke up. "Look Columbo, you and your men---"
"My men? Oh, you mean these fine gentlemen behind me." He gestures to the four men behind him. "No sir, these are Judges Wargrave and Ciretto, Detective Keen, and Chief Darby. No sir, these aren't my men, they're my poker group. We were getting ready to have a late game when I got this call."
Steele was rapidly getting angry again. "Look Columbo, I didn't try to kill Laura. You saw us having dinner earlier. We were having a fine time. Why would I try to kill her? Why would I kill any woman? I'm not the White Lace Slasher, damn it! I'm telling you I saw a tall, thin man in black run out of her bedroom when I busted in and found her like that! Why, aside from the ridiculous assumption that I would kill anyone, would I ever do Laura Holt any harm?"
McGuire smirked. "She's pretty hot. Maybe you were expecting a little repayment for that dinner tonight."
Both Steele and Murphy lunged for him. Murphy was held back by Rockford as several cops restrained Steele, his dislike for the cocky police officer obvious. "You bastard! Quit making her sound like a cheap tart on Sunset!"
Taking a puff of his ever-present cigar, Columbo scowled at McGuire. "That's enough. You men take Steele in and book him. I'll question him when I get there." Gesturing to Murphy and Rockford, he added, "You two come down to the station too."
Murphy ran his fingers through his hair. "Look Columbo, I want to thank you for getting me out but--"
Columbo cut him off. "Not a problem, sir. That letter proved you had been set up. I'm just glad I could get you free. Sorry about being your boss to set you up though."
Fidgeting, Murphy gritted his teeth. "Yeah, well, look Columbo; Steele and I don't see exactly eye to eye, but uh...he didn't do this."
Breaking in, Rockford nodded. "Columbo, I've seen Steele with that girl. For crying out loud, apparently they were having a romantic evening tonight. Why would he all of a sudden start trying to kill her? Or any of those women?"
Shrugging, Columbo said, "Sir, people have been known to kill for less. But I still need you two to come down. Mr. Michaels, when Miss Holt regains consciousness, I'd like to question her."
Murphy nodded. "Look, we'll come down to the station, but I'd like to head over to the hospital first---to check on Laura; then we'll come down."
"That's very understandable, sir."
He watched as the two men left anxiously, taking a thoughtful puff of his cigar.
Turning to his poker group, Columbo smiled. "Well, I guess thegame goes on without me tonight."
Ciretto shook his head. "I can't believe it. The White Lace Slasher is the best detective in LA."
Wargrave spoke up. "Maybe he did see a man in black."
Columbo shook his head. "Something's just not adding up."
Darby merely grunted.
Columbo waved in that way he had. "Well, sirs, it looks like you'll have to take someone else's money tonight."
As the four men said their goodbyes and the other three exited,Columbo stood in Laura Holt's living room. He saw a white rose, fresh and obviously from tonight. Shaking his head as he walked out, he mumbled to himself, "Yep. Something's definitely rotten in Denmark."
Steele sat in the closed room, his face in his hands. God, he hoped Laura was all right. And on that same question, someone was trying very hard to frame him, going to the trouble of taking the lives of eight young women and attempting to murder one whom he happen to care for very much.
The door opened and Columbo walked in accompanied by McGuire and another cop. Sitting across from him, Columbo offered Steele a cigarette. Shaking his head, Steele sat back in his chair, not really in the room at all. His thoughts were focused on Laura.
Columbo finally spoke up. "Well, sir, my first question would be where were you on all those days you can't account for and why is it they were the same days Mr. Michaels was absent from the office?"
Steele shook his head. "I know you're probably not going tobelieve this, but I was at the movies."
McGuire's face was incredulous. "The *movies?* Yeah, right."
Columbo turned around. "McGuire, people like the movies. I like the movies. My wife is always telling me we go to the movies too much."
After silencing the younger cop, Columbo turned back to Steele.
"So you were at the movies. You left most of the afternoon andleft your associate Miss Holt to do most of the work."
Steele spoke seriously. "She's the best detective I've ever known. Quick-thinking, independent, resourceful. Columbo, I'd trust herwith my life." He smiled slightly. "You might say she's responsible for Remington Steele Investigations. She knows her job and does it well."
McGuire smirked. "Apparently she does a lot of things well."
Steele jumped up to attack McGuire, but the other cop held him back. He settled instead for shouting. "Damn you, I already told you once to quit talking about Laura as if she was a bloody slut!" His ocean-colored eyes gleamed menacingly. "What's the matter, McGuire? Did Miss Holt crack a case before you did? Make you question your masculinity? Does it bother you a woman is a better PI than you are?"
Columbo stepped between the two men, attempting to diffuse the situation. "Mr. Steele, sir, sit down. I wouldn't want to have to restrain you."
"I won't have--"
"And," Columbo turned around to face McGuire. "You watch your mouth. I happen to have met the lady in question and happen to know she is a good detective. So knock it off, son, and act like a professional or I'll drop a line to Chief Salinos."
McGuire quickly shut up. Turning back to Steele, Columbo continued. "Now, Mr. Steele, could anyone at the cinema account for your presence?"
Steele shrugged, depressed. "I doubt it. I went to several of them and all of the workers were teenagers, who probably wouldn't remember anyone over the age of twenty."
"Sir, I saw you and Miss Holt having dinner tonight. What happened after that."
"Well, we went back to her house in the limo."
"We talked for a few minutes and then we were going to watch a movie. She went into her bedroom to change out of her dress and told me to help myself to anything in the kitchen. I went to the kitchen... Laura must have been in her bedroom for five minutes when I heard her scream."
"Keep going, Mr. Steele."
"Uhhhh--" Steele rubbed his eyes wearily. "I tried to open the door and she, or the attacker, had locked it. I finally rammed the door and fell inside. That's when the tall, thin man in black ran out. I found Laura and your men found me Columbo."
Columbo shook his head. "That a lot to swallow sir--a lot. I mean, this man in black, did anyone else see him? When I question MissHolt, if she says she saw him, you're off the hook, but if not--"
Steele scowled. "I'm well aware of how it sounds lieutenant, but I’m telling the truth. All I know is someone attempted to strangle Laura and is trying to make the agency appear in a very bad light."
"Well, sir, we'll look into what you told us." Columbo got up from his chair as the other two men exited the small room. "Oh, just one more thing, Mr. Steele. I found this note in Mr. Michaels' hotel room. Do you know anything about it?" He passed the note to Remington, whose eyes widened in surprise at what he read. Handing it back to Columbo, he spoke quietly. "Columbo, I give you my word, I never called Murphy. Had no reason to."
Columbo grinned. "We'll try and get to the bottom of this, sir. One last question, Mr. Steele. I really hate to ask something this personal and all, but you understand I'm sure...after all, I saw you and Miss Holt having what could be called a romantic dinner tonight. Were you and the young lady..." Columbo waved his hand around in a funny attempt to be delicate.
Steele immediately figured out what he was trying to ask. "Oh, no...we aren't."
Smiling, Columbo said, "Well, thank you, sir. I'm afraid we're going to have to book you, but I'm going to question Miss Holt and Mr. Michaels and Rockford as soon as I can. The guard should be back in a minute."
As he went to walk out the door, he turned around. "Oh, just one more thing...I talked to Mr. Michaels on the phone before I came in here. He says Miss Holt is fine and sleeping right now, and will probably be released tomorrow."
Closing the door, Columbo heard a faint "Thank the Lord."
Yep, there was definitely a rotten apple in this barrel.
Columbo walked out of the room, shaking his head. None of this was adding up. From all the evidence, it looked like Steele was the White Lace Slasher, but something wasn't adding up. Two members of Remington Steele Investigations absent on the same day the murders are committed and both end up being accused, although Murphy Michaels was let off the hook Then there was Steele's reaction to the attack on Laura Holt. He was less worried about what his situation was then her condition. If Steele wanted something from Laura Holt, her life wasn't it.
"Columbo!" He turned to see Murphy Michaels and Jim Rockford walking toward him. He grinned, knowing full well they would probably rather be at the hospital.
"Thank you for coming, sirs. How is Miss Holt?"
Murphy spoke. "Same as when we talked on the phone, but she should be fine. Please don't question her tonight though. She's knocked out."
Columbo held up his hands. "I wouldn't dream of it, Mr. Michaels. She's already had one rough night."
"Speaking of rough nights, where's Steele?" Rockford broke in.
"Well, sir, I'm afraid we have to book him. He's going through processing now."
Murphy groaned. "And it looks as though the reporters have already found out."
Columbo hurriedly led them to a small room, motioning for McGuire to keep the reporters away. They were joined by an officer Murphy knew, Officer Isabel Nelmen, who bore a resemblance to Laura that always left Murphy feeling like he had just walked into ‘The Twilight Zone.’
Columbo sat down across from them, pausing for a few minutes before beginning questioning. "Mr. Michaels, what was the relationship between Mr. Steele and Miss Holt?"
The older man didn't miss the slightly annoyed look that passed over Murphy's face. He shrugged. "They work together."
"Mr. Michaels, if you're worried about anything you say getting out to the press, let me ease your mind by saying Isabel here is better than the CIA." Murphy didn't miss the smirk on the woman's face."
"All right, but none of this gets out. I suppose you could say Laura and Steele were dating...sort of. Actually, it's really hard to define."
"All right. We'll say they were sort of dating. How long have you known Miss Holt?"
"Seven years. We both started at the Havenhurst Agency."
"And how long have you and Miss Holt known Remington Steele."
"We've both been there since the beginning." *That's not really a lie...God, Laura's much better at these ambiguous statements.*
"Okay." Columbo took a puff on his ever-present cigar. "Mr. Michaels, were you aware that Mr. Steele was absent on the same days you were."
"No, but he was probably at the movies."
Columbo had an odd smile on his face. "Funny you should say that, sir. That's exactly what he said."
Columbo continued to question Murphy for a few minutes then began on Rockford. Thanking them for their time, he instructed Nelman to take them out the back way.
As the door close behind them, Columbo leaned back in his chair. "Very interesting."
The tall, gaunt figure watched as they hauled Steele toward lockup. He grinned. *Almost did it. Ah, well, so much more interesting this way. There will be another time.*
Walking toward the back offices, he kept his mind on finishing this game with a flourish.
The dignified old judge sat in his office with Darby, quietly talking. Neither noticed the shadow pass by the door.
Steele sat in his cell, his emotions swirling in his brain. He didn't like being confined unless it was by choice. He looked around as he saw a guard come to answer a prisoner's yelling. An idea became to form in his mind.
*White Heat, James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Warner Brothers, 1952.*
Beth Davenport watched the sleeping young woman in concern. Laura Holt was the only one who had seen her attacker. Beth shuddered at what Jim had said about the other victims. There was a maniac on the loose tonight.
The prison guard walked down the hall checking all the cells. Coming to Steele's cell, he stopped and stared. Steele was on the floor, convulsing in a seizure and sweating heavily. Collins ran down the hall, shouting about getting an ambulance. "Eddie, call an ambulance! I think Steele's having an epileptic seizure or something. He's in convulsions."
Columbo heard the siren wailing as it came closer to the station. He shrugged. Probably some drug addict they had arrested had gone off on a bad trip. He studied his information, an idea forming in his head.
Murphy and Rockford quietly opened the hospital room door. Beth walked over to them. "Why don't you guys head home? I'll stay for a few more hours and then go home--but I'll come very early tomorrow."
Murphy nodded toward the sleeping form. "How is she?"
"Sleeping pretty quietly, but she woke up an hour ago screaming Mr. Steele's name. They had to sedate her."
Rockford shook his head. "Lord, that might seriously incriminate him unless she was calling for him to help her."
Murphy ran his hands through his hair tiredly. "Whatever. Look, why don't we all head home now? Laura's not going to wake up at all tonight and we've got to find out what happened tomorrow."
Rockford and Beth nodded in agreement. As they filed out of the room, Murphy took one last look at Laura. Whatever kind of sham artist Steele really was and whomever he may have murdered in his past, Murphy could say without question that Steele wouldn't touch Laura... well, not that way. Murphy gritted his teeth. Steele had never bothered to hide his lust for the independent young woman. But still, he was an innocent man rotting in jail. Mouthing a silent good night to Laura, Murphy closed the door.
The attendant wheeled a convulsing Steele into a room, taking his blood pressure and heart rate. Getting his information, he quickly went to retrieve a doctor, shaking his head. Who would've believed the famous detective Remington Steele was really the White Lace Slasher?
The minute the door closed, Steele broke out of his convulsive state. *Thank you, Mr. Cagney!*
Murphy had said Laura was in room 602.
Seeing the air conditioner vent above him, Steele moved the gurneylengthwise and climbed. He hoisted himself into the opening, replacing the grate.
He had to see if Laura was all right.
Those hands went through Laura's lingerie drawer, feeling the liquid silk through gloves. There would be a next time. His eyes riveted to a picture of the young woman and another female, the other office worker, Berniece Foxe. He smiled. He wondered how Remington Steele was going to sneak out of the hospital.
The guards opened the door to let the doctor in.
"Oh, my God! He’s gone! Head up to room 602!"
"How the hell did he lift that gurney by himself?!"
Columbo drank his coffee. What was the common factor in all of these murders? He wondered how that little lady was doing. Reaching for the phone, he suddenly wondered how deeply Laura Holt and Remington Steele were involved.
He dropped...literally...into Room 602, quietly in case she was asleep. Locking her door, Remington turned to study Laura for what seemed like an eternity. Touching her cheek gently, the man called Remington Steele was surprised to find he had a lump in his throat. Sleeping, Laura looked nothing like the tough, brassy detective who said to hell with people who couldn't deal with a female PI. Rather, she looked liked a tiny, fragile doll--a little girl whose tiny bones would break if he touched her too roughly. Steele smiled slightly. How deceptive were appearances.
He shook her gently, trying not to startle her and praying for enough time to find out from her what had happened and who it was who had attacked her. And then he was going to find the bloody bastard and cut his heart out, for Laura and for all the other young women whose lives had been taken away too soon by some maniac.
Laura could hear someone calling her name, touching her gently on her arm...not her neck, not like the maniac whose hands were squeezing her breath away *...Oh, God, nodon'tletit--notagain....*
She opened her eyes gasping for breath. A hand stroked her cheek, a voice softly murmured her name...his voice..."Mr. Steele?"
He looked like he had been through hell, but those blue eyes lit up as he saw only confusion in those lovely brown eyes...not fear.
"Laura, are you all right?"
Laura attempted to sit up. Her throat felt like it was on fire and she could barely whisper, "I guess."
Steele held her hand, not quite willing to lose the physical contact with her. "Laura, do you remember what happened? Who was it?"
Laura shook her head. "All I remember is feeling someone grab me and seeing a piece of white." She swallowed hard. "Then his hands went around my throat and I screamed for you to help me. God, Mr. Steele, I didn't even see who it was!"
Steele nodded, his ears listening for them to come. He had to make it fast. "Laura, I busted down your door and a man, tall and thin, dressed in black came running out. No one saw him but me and right now I'm under arrest for being the White Lace Slasher."
"What?!" The jerky movement caused Laura to wince in pain. "You're not! You didn't do it!"
Steele and Laura heard a commotion on the floor below them. Remington squeezed her hand. "Laura, someone's trying to frame me and kill you. I can't stay in prison like a good boy and allow that to happen to you, so I've got to run." His eyes raised to the air conditioning vent above her nightstand. Looking up, Laura immediately understood exactly how he had gotten in here. She nodded. "Stay out of sight. Someplace safe, but let me know where you are. As soon as they let me out, I'll try to find something and I'm sure Murph's already started."
Steele was touched by the fact, that for all her doubt about his motives and past, Laura did not even question the fact that he would never murder anyone, or, at the very least, harm her.
Smiling in that recklessly charming way, Steele brushed his lips softly against hers before climbing onto her nightstand and pulling his disappearing act.
Laura watched as the vent was replaced, trying to fight back tears. Maybe it was just an emotional response to what had happened to her, but Laura couldn't help feeling like her whole world was crashing down on her. She whispered raspily, "Get out of here safely for me, Mr. Steele."
Steele heard the cops checking rooms and slamming doors. He followed the air conditioning system all the way to the dumpster in the back alley. Climbing out of the filthy bin, he quickly glanced over his shoulder. It wouldn't take the cops long. There was only one place where he could hide and keep a protective eye on Laura. In the one place where the police had already been.
Steele suddenly understood the rules of the game. The predator was after the most valuable prize of Remington Steele Investigations... not the Agency's reputation...Laura.
He turned and ran, the mouse to the cat who was making up the rules in this drama.
They busted into Laura's room, quickly and thoroughly searching. Steele was nowhere, but Laura appeared to be unharmed and sleeping deeply, probably sedated.
McGuire shrugged. "I don't want to admit it, but go put out an APB...we lost him. I want an all out manhunt. And get Columbo on it, too. He's going to question her," gesturing to a sleeping Laura, "tomorrow."
As they shut the door, they failed to notice Laura's eyes open toslits. Once again in privacy, Laura wished for the safety of her mysterious frontman with the blue eyes of steel.
Judge Anthony Ciretto yawned loudly. What a night! First the poker game had broken up because another woman had been attacked by the White Lace Slasher. Then they all find out the White Lace Slasher is none other than Remington Steele and the victim one of his employees. Then, the icing on the cake...Steele escapes from the same hospital where Laura Holt was taken. No wonder he had been tossing and turning all night...so loudly that Marie had kicked him out to the sofa. Ciretto was so deep in thought he crashed soundly into Judge Matthew Wargrave, sending his papers flying everywhere. "Oh, damn! Matt, I'm sorry!"
Wargrave shrugged and bent to pick up the mess. Anthony Ciretto bent down to help. As he handed the files back to Matthew, he noticed the case profile was for the White Lace Slasher. His eyebrows raised in surprise, Ciretto joked, "Didn't know you were into the psychology of serial killers. I thought it was only me."
Matthew Wargrave grimaced. "Lovely way of putting it. I just find the whole situation morbidly fascinating."
"Yeah. I know what you mean. I still can't believe it's Steele."
Philosophically, Wargrave whistled. "Maybe the art of murder can be more compelling than the skill of detection."
"Thank you Jean Jacques Rosseau."
Columbo walked through the hospital, trying to find room 602. Taking the elevator, he wondered how cooperative Laura Holt would be. She seemed bound and determined to protect Steele at all costs. Interesting.
Finding her room, he knocked softly on the door. A voice snapped, "If you're a reporter, beat it...right off the Golden Gate!"
As he walked in, Laura blushed. "Sorry for snapping, Columbo. I thought it was one of those reporters or that sadist they have for a nurse to come do some more tests on me."
Columbo grinned. "That's all right, Miss Holt. I'm not too fond of hospitals myself. My wife is the one who usually ends up making the appointment for me. And I know those reporters are probably bordering on harassment right about now. Mr. Michaels told me they're camped out in front of your agency."
Laura wasn't fooled by his attempt at small talk. "Why are you here?"
The lieutenant shrugged. "Ma'am, are you aware that Mr. Steele was arrested for attempted murder on you last night and then was brought here, to this very hospital, because it appeared he was suffering from some sort of seizure. Then he escaped and they think he may have come in here. Now we have a manhunt to find him."
"I was told."
Columbo didn't miss the young woman's careful phrasing. He continued. "Miss Holt... Laura...doesn't that scare you? I mean, from all accounts, it looks as though Remington Steele is the White Lace Slasher."
Laura became agitated, trying not to raise her voice, for it was still sore from the bruises both on her neck and internally. "No, Columbo, it doesn't scare me, because Mr. Steele is not the White Lace Slasher. He'd never hurt me or any other woman. And working for Remington Steele Investigations, I should know better than anyone."
Columbo grinned in that curious way. "That's right, Miss Holt. You should know better than anyone else."
Laura suddenly eyed him warily. "What the hell is that supposed to mean? And let's drop the bumbling detective routine. You were sniffing out Mr. Steele even before I was attacked."
The older man sat down in the chair beside her bed. "You're right, Miss Holt. Let's cut to the chase. You know, I've always admired Mr. Steele's success at his work. Very admirable. Then when all this started and Mr. Steele was arrested, naturally, I had to go back and do some research. And I found something very interesting, going through all those old newspapers and all. What year did Remington Steele Investigations open?"
"And you were always there?"
"Since the beginning."
Columbo scratched his chin. "Yeah, and I read about all those cases Remington Steele Investiga-tions solved and I began to notice something. There was an awful lot of you and none of Remington Steele...that is, until that Royal Lavulite appeared."
Laura didn't like the way this conversation was going. She thought quickly. "At the time, Mr. Steele functioned best in an advisorycapacity."
Columbo suddenly laughed. "You know something, Miss Holt? That's another thing I noticed...you never speak directly, always vague. And you always seem to answer for Mr. Steele."
Laura smiled coldly. "What do you think, Columbo? Do you think I faked this attack on myself and framed two people?" She grinned. "Or maybe I'm hiding something... which is completely ridiculous."
He chuckled again. "There you go again...that same vagueness. No,Miss Holt...I do have a theory...one which would explain exactly why Remington Steele didn't show up until October 2, 1982. I think Remington Steele is really Laura Holt. I don't know who the man we're chasing is, but I know he's not Remington Steele."
Laura, who knew better than anyone how to walk a tightrope this thin, merely replied, "That has got to be the most absurd theory I've ever heard."
Columbo looked her in the eye, like he might have looked at his daughter. "But I notice you didn't deny it." He sat back in his chair. "Let me tell you my theory. I think Remington Steele never existed. I think you and Mr. Michaels and Miss Foxe made him up...not sure why...but I think it has a little to do with the way I've watched some of the boys treat you." He grinned in that peculiarly friendly smile. "I think this man you call Remington Steele was trying to *steal* the Royal Lavulite and found out you had a non-existent superior. He also probably fit your idea of Remington Steele perfectly. A little trade off was made and everybody lives happily ever after. Now--what do you think of my theory, Miss Holt?"
Laura gritted her teeth. She knew Columbo always got his man. Time to change her own rules and play by Mr. Steele's. She gave Columbo an appreciative grin. "Columbo, let's play with this little theory of yours. Let's say, *hypothetically*, you're correct. Remington Steele doesn't actually exist and I know nothing about the man whom I call by that name. Here's another hypothetical theory."
"I'm listening, ma'am."
Her brown eyes hazed over with memories that stung. "Let's say...hypothetically...that you're a detective and a pretty good one. You do your job and always nab the crook. Yet all anyone ever sees is the fact that you happen to be female. No one listens to your ideas, but if a male co-worker makes the same statement you just said, he's applauded and you're told to watch how he does things. So you decide to try it on your own, but you find out the general public wants a big strong man, no matter how good you are. So you give everyone just what they want." Laura smiled, a stark contrast to the coldness in her pretty eyes. Columbo's gaze never wavered. Taking a deep breath she continued, "You give the public a big, strong male detective who sends you around as his little messenger girl because that what the public wants. You make up a decidedly *masculine* superior. No one questions why they never see him and you know from experience that most people don't notice too much. It works like a charm and you're pulling off a balancing act that would make a tightrope walker nervous. Then one day, a client insists that your non-existent superior personally supervise the entire operation. Because you need the money, you decide to raise the stakes a little higher. At the same time, a conman arrives, pretending to be a member of the government which owns the jewels. Your client sees you both together and assumes he's your mythical superior. This conman makes no attempt to correct the client and soon, because, being a conman, he figures out your ruse, he's playing his own little game with you...so he can steal the gems. At the same time, two men are after him because he's outwitted them around the globe over these gems. They frame him for murder. You help him nab them."
Laura took a deep breath, her face softening. "You notice he's about as close to your non-existent superior as anything. And then he leaves and you think you'll never see him again. You greet a new client the next day and show him to the office and find that conman sitting at a desk that seems to have been waiting for him. By unspoken mutual agreement, he sticks around."
Columbo prodded her gently. "And?"
Laura laughed, enjoying a private joke. "And the best detective agency in California is run by a conman who's turning into a pretty damn good detective because he's being taught by someone whom nobody was willing to give a chance to prove herself. And your entire ruse just may get him convicted of a crime he didn't commit."
Columbo didn't miss the sudden sparkle in Laura's eyes. He sighed. Columbo knew it was tough to be a female in this business, but this one was pulling off the stunt of the century. He grinned. Then again, it sounded so extraordinary, who'd believe it?
He cleared his throat. "Miss Holt...Laura?"
She looked at him. "I want an honest answer lieutenant, one detective to another, do you think he did it?"
Columbo patted her hand. "Ma'am, this goes no further, but I saw the way he was concerned over your condition. He didn't do it. But I need your help to prove that. Just a few questions."
"Where did you two go after dinner?"
"Can anyone prove that?"
"Fred, the chauffeur."
"All right. Mr. Steele says you went in your bedroom to change. Did you?"
"Then what happened?"
Laura shuddered. "I felt these hands go around my waist. Next thing I knew, they were around my neck and I saw a piece of white cloth out of the corner of my eye. I screamed and he tried to strangle me."
Columbo leaned forward, his eyes locking with hers. "Laura, as adetective, you know it's a crime to lie in questioning. Just be honest with me. Did you see who strangled you?"
Laura paused for a long moment before dropping her eyes to study the blanket. She shook her head. "No, I didn't."
Columbo closed his eyes, shaking his head apologetically. He knew how hard it must have been for Laura to admit that. He had been hoping she had seen the tall man in black Steele had claimed to have seen. He studied her, not missing the faint crease of worry in her forehead. "Laura, just one more question. Do you think he did it?"
Laura looked at him. "No! He didn't! I know that wasn't him!"
"Laura, how do you know?"
The young woman blushed slightly. "I...well, that is...I..." Her voice lowered slightly as her face turned even redder. "I know what his hands feel like."
Columbo nodded under-standingly as he got up. "One more question. I know you must be dying to leave this place. Did Mr. Steele come in here last night?"
Laura grinned. "Columbo, from what they told me, I was heavily sedated."
Columbo suddenly kissed the brunette's tiny hand, patting it affectionately. "Miss Holt, you beat 'em all."
Walking toward the door, the grizzled old detective suddenly turned around. "Oh, just one more thing. Were you and Mr. Steele--"
Making a gesture, he wondered if her answer would be the same.
"No, Columbo. We weren't. I have a question of my own."
"About our hypothetical conversation and theories...what are you going to do about them?"
Columbo smirked. "Miss Holt, you were right. That has to be the most absurd thing I’ve ever come up with. I mean, who would believe a tiny little thing like yourself could do all that and keep a thief in line. Completely unbelievable. Good luck, Miss Holt."
Giving her a wink, he whistled a little tune as he shut her door.
Laura, stunned, stared at the door for a few minutes before busting out into laughter. Jumping out of bed, she signaled for the nurse. Time to get back to the office and get her conman off the hook.
*Just hang in there, Mr. Steele.*
Murphy, Rockford, and Beth walked into Suite 1157 to see Berniece Foxe staring dejectedly at the phones. Murphy walked up to her. Berniece glared at him. "I had to chase the reporters out of here this morning and every client we have has just called to cancel and get a load of the morning paper. Laura's gonna love this."
She pointed to the headline of the LA Times. It read, in huge glaring black and white, FAMOUS DETECTIVE'S DOUBLE LIFE--Remington Steele's Life as The White Lace Slasher Ends as He Attempts to Murder Female Employee.
Murphy read the article, throwing it to Rockford in disgust. "I love it. They quote McGuire, a guy looking for a quick promotion and he makes it sound like Laura and Steele were in some sort of smutty affair."
Beth's mouth twisted. "That guy's badge really ought to be revoked."
Murphy poured himself a cup of coffee. "Well, at any rate, let's get started. We need to find out who made the call to the cops and who knows our schedules so well that they'd be able to plan this."
Rockford broke in. "Let's not forget finding out where Steele is hiding."
"When's Laura being released?"
Murphy grinned at Berniece. "Probably as soon as they can kick her out. She's probably driving the staff crazy."
Beth laughed. "Look, I'm supposed to pick her up and while I'm at it, I'll find out who made the call."
"Okay. See if you can find out where it was made from too."
"All right." Beth walked out of the office, preparing to do battle with the numerous news crews downstairs.
Steele grinned. Laura might be back shortly and she had wanted him to hide in a safe spot. Nothing could be safer than her house--under her bed to be precise. Nero came around, swatting his paw at the tall Irishman's nose. Steele glared at the black feline. For all he might adore Laura, he barely tolerated this bloody animal who always had a knack for interrupting intimate moments.
His body tensed as he heard voices outside. Female voices. In particular, a lilting feminine voice belonging to one specific female.
Laura shrugged. "Beth, I'm fine. Still a little sore, but fine. I don't care what Murphy says, I'm going to the office."
Beth tried to reason with the stubborn young woman. "Laura, you just got out of the hospital. One day won't kill you."
"One day could kill Mr. Steele's chances."
He heard Beth sigh in resignation. "All right! All right! Murphy's has me looking into who made that call. Do you want me to wait for you?"
"No, but thanks. I'm going to go look into some old files. Maybe it's an old case with a really ticked off individual. Also, find out who was around when they found me."
"Okay. You need anything, call. Bye."
He heard a door shut and footsteps head toward his proximity. Seeing her feet, he quietly whispered her name. "Laura... psst...Laura, under here, next to this ridiculous animal."
Laura's eyes widened as she heard a feline hiss and a muffled curse as well as some choice remarks about drowning cats. Bending over, she found Remington sprawled out under her bed. Looking out her bedroom window quickly, she stared at him for a second before regaining her voice. "What are you doing here?!"
He grinned. "You told me to let you know where I was."
Laura was getting nervous. "Mr. Steele, they have undercover cops all over this neighborhood. You can't stay here. This isn't safe. They're watching my house. How did you get in here?"
Steele smirked as he crawled out from under the bed. "Secrets of the trade, my dear Miss Holt." Turning serious, he let the back of his hand glide down her cheek, checking for any reaction of pain. "Are you feeling better?"
She smiled wryly. "As well as I can be with a bruised neck and a throat that feels like I've swallowed glass. You shouldn't be here," she said reprovingly, for all that she was glad to see her mystery man alive and safe...well, alive at any rate.
Nodding, Remington said, "I know. But I wanted to check on you, make sure you were all right. I'll be somewhere else when you come back. I have the utmost faith in your abilities, but I want to find the bloody bastard who put his hands on you."
He turned and cupped her face in his hands, his countenance full of emotions she never knew existed in him. "No, Laura, you're not! Not to me. I know you don't want to think about it, but someone tried to kill you last night. Go stay someplace else tonight."
Laura shook slightly, finally letting go of the carefully controlled facade she had erected. Anything was better than thinking about it. Arms wrapped around her. Her voice was muffled as she said, "The sooner we get you off the hook, the safer we'll all be. Just find a safe place to go to until then."
"I will. Don't worry, they won't find me. And you--"
"I'll stay at Berniece's."
"Aye, tha's a fine lady." He deliberately exaggerated his brogue, relishing in the giggle it produced along with the slightly affectionate, "Get lost, you con."
"As you wish." Remington was under her bed again, but not before he raised her hands to his lips in a gesture of farewell.
He watched as the young woman exited her house. He smiled. It was too easy really. He had seen a shadow moving in her bedroom, too tall to be Laura Holt. He was in the middle of everything and wasn't even being looked at twice. This was turning out to be rather interesting. His grinned widened into a leer. Those long runner's legs, bare and tanned and that delicate build. He could understand why Steele wanted her. But like the others, it was a situation that could not be tolerated. They had been guilty and so was she. Added to her crime, she now had aiding and abetting under her belt. Definitely against the law. He knewwhat the judgment was: guilty. The sentence: DEATH.
And Remington Steele would serve his time for participating in this crime.
Laura hugged Berniece. "Thanks for holding down the fort."
"Yeah, well the fort's slowly turning into the Alamo."
Her remarked produced a grimace from Laura. "Well, they're all up there I guess--" Laura's sentence was cut off as a throng of reporters came rushing up, throwing questions in her face.
"Miss Holt, did you ever suspect Mr. Steele was the White Lace Slasher?"
"Miss Holt, is it true Mr. Steele attacked you in your bedroom?"
"Miss Holt, how long have you and Mr. Steele been lov--"
*Bless you Columbo!* "No comment. We have work to do. Goodbye!"
Grabbing Columbo by the arm, she and Berniece ran to an elevator to escape the commotion.
In the office, Murphy, Beth, and Rockford were already sorting out information. Rockford raised an eyebrow to see Columbo, but Laura quickly waved away any concerns. "What've we got?"
Beth took a deep breath. "Well, according to the police operator, the call was done from a pay phone, anonymously. There is no indication as to who the caller was."
"But," Rockford continued, picking up where Beth left off. "Let's look at the obvious. Obviously, it would have had to have been someone who was around to begin with. That police car wasn't far, so it would have had to have been someone who knew the police schedule."
Murphy sat back. "You know, if it had to be someone who knew allthe police schedules, obviously it would have to be someone within the department...ah, no offense, Columbo."
Columbo held up his hand. "None taken, Mr. Michaels. But if that theory is true, then who? Our department's awfully big, sir, awfully big."
Beth broke in. "There's one more thing. The pay phone was the one around the corner from Laura's house."
Everyone stared at her. "Beth, are you sure about that?"
"No, Jim. I made it up. Of course I'm sure."
Laura chewed her lower lip thoughtfully, not really in the room at all. Her thoughts were with a certain Irish rogue who hopefully was tucked away someplace safe and sound. Someone was trying to frame him and kill her. But why? To embarrass the agency? That was too easy. One murder framing Steele could have done the same trick. For revenge? She couldn't think of anyone that hell-bent for revenge and most of the people they had stopped were cooling their heels behind bars. She glanced at the Los Angeles Times, her temper rising at the headline article. If she ever got her hands on McGuire, she would cheerfully throttle him. What was his gripe with the agency anyway? She heard Murphy talking. Something about a suspect.
"Columbo, what do you know about McGuire?"
"Well, sir, I know he could be a good cop if he really tried."
"That's not what I mean. Don't you find it funny that his squad car happened to be so close by when that call was made? And have you heard his comments about Laura and Steele?"
Laura nodded reluctantly. "On a purely circumstantial level, itfits. But why?"
Columbo exhaled on his cigar. "Well, Mr. Michaels, I'd have to agree with you. But Miss Holt brings up a good point. Why?"
"It's just an idea. But here's a theory. No offense, Columbo, but your boys aren't exactly fond of us, particularly when Laura's around. Maybe he just got a little tired of being one-upped. McGuire obviously likes embarrassing the agency in public as it is." He motioned disgustedly to the paper. "Maybe he decided to up the ante. It's just a theory."
Rockford grinned. "Except for a few holes, it's a damn good theory, Murph. What do you think, Columbo?"
"It's possible, sir, very possible."
Laura got up and paced, her mouth in a thoughtful frown. Looking up, she shook her head. "It's a possible theory, but it doesn't hold. This is too easy. McGuire's in all the right places at all the right times, but outwardly, he doesn't have the imagination to pull something like this off. And besides, being a chauvinist doesn't necessarily make a person a murderer." She slammed her hand on Steele's desk. "Damn it, we're all detectives and we're sitting here not knowing which way to turn!"
*And Mr. Steele is on the run and I'm scared. God help me, I'm scared to death.*
She smiled ruefully at her outburst. "I'm sorry. In case you can't tell, I've been under a lot of stress." Her attempt at a joke caused the others to grin. "Look, this just doesn't feel right. I feel like I'm in the middle of some psycho chess game. Let's check out the files."
An hour later, Laura was engrossed in the files when she heard Murphy shout, "I think I've found something!"
They listened as he talked in rapid sentences of excitement. "Laura says we need a motive. How this? Laura, while you were still in the hospital, we did some checking. Remember how on of the victims was named Taryn Hianakus? I couldn't place where I had seen her face. I cross-checked backgrounds."
"Murph, get to the point."
"I'm getting there." Murphy's face was lighting up in excitement. "We worked a case for someone named Taryn Mitchell. Remember?"
Comprehension dawned on Laura's face. "Ohmigosh. She was attempting to find out why a female cop had died in--"
"What was considered a questionable accident."
Columbo's eyebrows raised. "That's true, sir. From what could be seen, she was apparently killed by her partner. Apparently, they wereengaged in a relationship of some sort."
Laura faced Columbo, her face eager with curiosity. "Columbo, do you know anything about the case?"
"Not really, ma'am. But I will say this...there was a lot of things the public, including yourselves, doesn't know about the victims."
Beth exchanged a look with Rockford. "Such as?"
"Well, for one thing, all these women were involved or had been involved in relationships of questionable nature...men they worked with or had worked with. This female cop, well, her partner was charged with her murder. They found him holding her by the throat, the knife in his hands, his prints on it. He could offer no alibi that would hold."
"Just like Mr. Steele." All eyes focused on Laura at her words. Her brown eyes widened as she jumped up excitedly. "This is too easy because we're looking at it like a normal crime. It isn't. No serial murder spree is, but this one is one for the books." She faced Columbo, her voice quavering in excitement. Laura ignored the pain in her throat as she began rambling on. "Columbo, you brought up the idea that someone was trying to embarrass the agency. Maybe what they're really trying to do is play God, decide what's correct and what isn't!"
Columbo stared at the young woman, understanding immediately why McGuire disliked her so much. She was better than most veteran detectives. McGuire was too concerned about making impressions to actually make a good impression doing his job right. He smiled slightly. He remembered the conversation in the hospital. It was a shame people were not to keen on hiring a female PI. With this little bundle of fireworks in action, they didn't know what they were missing.
Laura grew annoyed at Columbo's silence. "Columbo!"
"Huh?" Columbo shook his head. "Oh, I'm sorry, ma'am. But I heard you." Looking at the others, he grinned. "I think, Miss Holt, may be onto something."
Murphy leaned forward. "You may just have a point."
"He has?" Murphy shot a glare at Berniece, who had been silently watching everyone until now.
"Yeah, he does. Hey, Laura, let's expand on your theory. Everyone of these women were supposedly involved with their co-workers or superiors. Go a little further. What if someone thinks you're involved with Steele? He's already set up one guy to take the fall for the murder of an ex-lover, why not pick someone very prominent, to use as an example?"
"Only make it look possible by framing him for the other murders," Rockford broke in excitedly. Turning to Columbo, he asked, "Columbo, who was in charge of those investigations?"
Columbo grinned in a silly way. "I know you guys don't really need the ammunition, but McGuire's been in charge since the beginning."
The entire room exchanged a glance as Columbo sat back, taking a leisurely puff on his cheap cigar. His eyes were fixed on Laura, who suddenly looked anxious. He wondered how long it would be before another attempt would be tried on her life. He wondered if she was more worried about that or the safety of Remington Steele.
Laura stared into space, mulling over Murphy and Rockford's theory. Maybe McGuire was the White Lace Slasher. But Mr. Steele had said the figure in black was tall and thin. McGuire was short and stocky and his dislike of her was personal prejudice, not some overwhelming desire to establish his own kind of justice. Her shoulders slumped as she thought of Mr. Steele. Suddenly, she hoped he hadn't left her house.
He laughed as he let the knife slice across her face, tearing the picture of Remington Steele Investigations to bits. "Guilty."
All criminals must be ferreted out. Steele would come out if he thought Laura was in danger. And both would play again in his little game. He didn't know which brought him more pleasure...the planning or the getting away with it.
Laura and Murphy walked down the gray hallway in silence. At the very least, they had a lead now, albeit a long shot. Still, Laura was not exactly at ease. She didn't like keeping things from Murphy and he still didn't know Steele was hiding in her house. She also wasn't sure McGuire was their man. Not knowing. It was the not knowing and looking over her shoulder that bothered her.
"Aren't you wondering where Steele is?"
The question snapped Laura out of her reverie. "Huh? Why do you ask, Murph?"
Murphy stopped and stared at Laura, noticing her preoccupied andslightly guilty expression. He knew Laura like he knew the back of his hand. And while Laura could and did talk her way out of anything, he also knew exactly why her face flushed slightly whenever they had an argument about this con. It suddenly dawned on him. "Laura, you know where the guy is, don't you?"
Laura turned those brown eyes on him, wide and pleading. Murphygritted his teeth. Laura had the right look to play the little shrinking violet, right down to her young looking features, and, when she had to, could use it to her advantage, for all she might despise doing so. This time though, Murphy saw a light and fear in those eyes which had never been there before. Murphy shook his head. What power did Steele have over her?
"Laura, you know where he is."
"Murphy, it wasn't him. He didn't do it and he didn't hurt me."
He sighed, running his hand over his eyes wearily. "I know he didn't do it, and this is me talking. But, Laura, what you're doing is aiding and abetting. That's a crime, remember?"
Laura shrugged. "Maybe. But McGuire's turning this thing into a witch hunt. First you and now Mr. Steele. I won't let an innocent man rot in jail."
"Fine, but what are you going to do if they search your house?"
Laura shrugged. "I'll cross that bridge when I get to it, but I don't even know if he's still there. I told him it wasn't safe. Look, Murph," she stopped him a few feet from McGuire's office. "I think we're barking up the wrong tree with McGuire."
Murphy's nerves were worn thin, between his own wrongful incarceration and the eeriness of this case. He exploded. "Then who the hell is it, Laura? We're clutching at straws! We've got to clear Steele and not just for his sake! If our license gets revoked, you'll be stuck playing secretary for the rest of your life and I won't be able to get a job as a night watchman in a graveyard! I'm sorry, Laura, I'm sorry."
Murphy pulled her into his arms, hugging her hard. He knew she was upset and he didn't want to contribute to her anxiety. He felt her shaking. Now Murphy felt like hell. Why, of all people, did he have to be the one to make Laura cry? He was about to console her when he heard a stifled giggle.
Pulling back, Murphy studied the woman he had known for nearly eight years. Laura was giggling so hard, she had to hold onto him for support. A tentative grin crossed Murphy's face. "What's so damn funny?"
Laura giggled again. "You haven't yelled at me like that since I defused that bomb a few years back."
Murphy's grin turned into a laugh. "Lord, I had forgotten about that." He wiped a tear from his eye. "Oh, man, I needed that."
Laura snickered momentarily before regaining her composure. "Look, Murph, I'm serious. I don't think McGuire's involved. Think about it. That anonymous tip about me was made by someone. It didn't just appear in police records. McGuire couldn't have made it. He was in a squad car with a partner."
Murphy saw where Laura was going. "Steele's man in black made the call."
"Still, don't you think we should at least question McGuire? I mean, the guy can't stand us, particularly you."
Laura's mouth hardened. "I'd like to clean his clock."
Laura banged on the office door. Opening the door, McGuire glared when he saw who it was. "What the hell are you two doing here?"
Murphy gripped Laura's arm, a silent warning to calm down. "We need to ask you a few questions."
McGuire smirked. "About what? You ought to be questioning your boss." He snapped his finger melodramatically. "Oh, that's right. Steele's on the run. I got news for you two...we're going to nail him tothe wall."
"Shove it, McGuire. You don't have anything and you know it."
McGuire turned to Laura. "Oh, really? Look, baby doll, why don't you go play secretary and leave the detective work to the big boys. What's the matter? Scared without your boss to keep you warm at night?"
Murphy was ready to wipe that smirk off the jerk's face. He never got the chance. Laura slammed a well-aimed punch into McGuire's jaw, sending him to the floor.
McGuire sat there, stunned at the strength of her blow. Laura stood over him, her eyes blazing fire. "Make a comment like that again and I'll break your face!"
He stumbled up in an attempt to regain dignity. "You two want something?"
"Answers to a few questions."
"Fine. Ask and get out."
Laura stared at him. "Okay. Where were *you* on the nights all those women were killed, not to mention the night of the attempt on me?"
Tom McGuire grinned viciously. "I was on duty all those nights and my partner can verify that."
Murphy looked at him suspiciously. "Are you looking for the guy Steele saw?"
"Oh, right!" McGuire threw his hands in the air. "A tall, thin man in black that no one but Steele saw. We asked everybody and no one could back up his story."
"What the hell are you driving at?"
"Only this." McGuire leaned over his desk, nose to nose with Laura and Murphy. "There ain't no man in black. Your boss is dead to rights a murderer. We're going to find him."
Laura's eyebrow raised. "You've been in charge of this investigation since day one. We can verify that with your superior, Captain Chapman. We can also verify that with Columbo."
Propping his feet on his desk, McGuire gave her a snide look. "Get to the point, girlie."
"Only this. Everywhere there's been a murder, there's been you."
Murphy picked up the line. "You've also recklessly accused twomen."
The police officer grinned. "Nice theory, but what about that little thing called a motive?"
Laura smiled sweetly. "A psychotic need to make people pay for their supposed sins--in a well-choreographed, sick game--which is why it isn't you. You're not bright enough to pull something like that off. C'mon, Murph." Laura pulled Murphy out with her. As the door slammed behind them, Murphy didn't miss Laura's self-satisfied smirk. He had to use long strides to keep up with her. "You wanna tell me what's going on?"
Shrugging her shoulders, Laura grinned wider. "Let's just say I gave him food for thought."
Murphy rolled his eyes in amusement. "So while he's eating, what are we going to do?"
Laura took a breath. "You and Rockford--find whatever you can. I don't care how insignificant it seems. I think he and Beth are at her office. I'm going back to my house."
Murphy's stern tone faded under the thoughtful look that crossed Laura's face. "Okay. Just be careful."
He watched them go their separate ways. He knew where she was headed. It was time to give another anonymous tip to the police. Tonight. Everything would be finished tonight. His hands fairly itched to begin as he clutched the white silk scarf in his pocket.
Columbo flipped through his files. What was the connecting link in all of this? All professional women? Brunettes? Maybe. His conversation with Laura at the hospital still rang in his ears. Someone who didn't think women belonged in the working world? Too easy. Still, it would have to be someone who kept tabs on those women, knew their schedules. He studied Laura's profile again. Laura Elizabeth Holt. Jan. 28, 1956. Twenty-seven years of age. Stanford--summa cum laude. Columbo grinned. Smart girl. But then, he already knew that. Occupation: private detective. He compared her profile to the other women. His wheels began to turn.
Two lawyers, three court reporters, one legal secretary, one paralegal, one cop...and Laura. All the women fit into a pattern exceptLaura.
Columbo knew he was very close to finding out who did it. He looked at his evidence. A phone message from Steele found in Murphy Michaels' hotel room. The report of the attack on Laura. The white silk scarf. He was pretty sure the murderer wasn't a cop. But it was someone who knew how those women spent their time...including Laura. The night she had been attacked--Columbo smacked his forehead in disbelief. "Holy cow! I don't believe it, but I think I got it!"
The absent minded detective puffed on his cigar thoughtfully as he walked away from his desk.
Laura grimaced as she saw the reporters thronging around her house. Thank God she knew how to get to her back door from the other street. Doing her best to look inconspicuous, Laura parked her Rabbit on the opposite side of the street and began to walk around the corner, congratulating herself on the fact that none of those idiots would notice her.
Remington scowled, pacing Laura's bedroom for the millionth time. He felt like a caged animal. Confinement, even for his own good, had never sat well with him. He was also racking his brain worrying about Laura's safety and trying to find a way out of this mess. Someone wanted her dead and him to take the fall for it. If he ever got his hands on the bugger, what that animal did to Laura was going to be mild compared to what Steele was going to do.
Picking up a photo on Laura's dresser, he grinned. It was a picture of Laura, Murphy, and Berniece in the office...taken before his arrival into their lives. Hearing the lock to the back door click, Remington tensed. Pressing himself against the wall, he watched as the shadow came closer. He reached out, pulling the figure into a death grip and covering the mouth.
"Laura?!" He quickly released her. "Dear Lord, I'm sorry. I thought--I'm sorry, Laura. Did I hurt you?" He bent over her, checking for any signs of distress. Laura waved away his concern. "I'm fine. Just hide under the bed again next time. I've been grabbed enough lately."
She pushed him down onto her bed. "Sit down."
She opened the blinds slightly to check outside. Muttering a silent thank you, she watched as a patrolling cop told the reporters to break it up. Laura turned back to Remington. "Okay. Here it is. We've been backed against a wall. Somebody wants you framed--"
"And you dead."
He didn't miss the slight pause before the softly whispered, "Yeah."
Shaking off her thoughts, Laura continued. "Anyway, we think we have a motive."
Steele's eyes widened. "What?"
Throwing her hands in the air, Laura sat down next to him. "This is going to sound crazy, but it seemed like the most logical conclusion."
"All right already! What we've come up with is maybe this person isplaying God...and turning it into a game. All the women, myself included are...were...supposedly involved with their superiors. Maybe this person doesn't like that and is playing judge, jury, and executioner like--" Laura's eyes widened slightly, then she shook her head. "Never mind. Stupid idea."
Remington grabbed her hands in his, staring her down. "None of your ideas are stupid. Laura, I know Murphy and Rockford and even Columbo are doing their best, but I've seen the way you work. Lady, I'm relying on you to get me off the hook so I can go after the bloody bugger who hurt you."
Laura studied his gorgeous face, memorizing every feature. She called him Remington Steele. Who was he really? Michael? Harry? It didn't matter now. Later, when this was over, it would matter. Right now, though, they were both in trouble, and though she'd never tell him, Laura was scared to death.
"Laura?" A gentle hand lifted her chin.
"Remember when you first showed up?"
"Yes." Laura didn't miss the sudden wariness in those blue eyes.
"Well, remember when Murph and I confronted you in the penthouse and I called you a thief?"
Steele nodded slightly, suspicious of where she was going with this.
"Do you remember what you said? You said, 'Kessler and Neff are thieves, I'm an artist.'"
Laura was growing more excited. Remington, on the other hand, was completely confused.
"Listen! Listen to me! Mr. Steele, what if that's it? What if someone had the same idea about murder?"
Comprehension dawned on Remington. "Someone who could appreciate the skill and planning--who sees murder as an art."
Laura nodded. "Getting away with it. The perfect crime which the best can't solve."
" ‘And Then There Were None.’"
Laura stared at him. "What?"
"Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston--"
"Get to the point!"
Steele met her gaze. "Ten people are called to an island, each accused of a crime by their unseen host. People are murdered according to a nursery rhyme."
Laura shook her head. "That's a novel by Agatha Christie."
"But the murderer creates the perfect murder. Ten people dead, including himself, and no one knows how."
Remington's voice was quiet as he spoke. "Laura, you'd have been number nine. What was I? The ultimate checkmate?"
Laura grew silent. Turning brown eyes on him, she spoke quietly. "Berniece got the address and alibis of everyone who was around the night I was--almost killed. We could hit paydirt. Here's the files. Your man in black is one of them."
Steele grinned uneasily. "You know that for sure?"
Laura shrugged. "Ninety-nine percent. It makes sense. It would have to be someone who knew you come over here a lot and therefore could watch me. It would also have to be someone who knew the schedules of those other women. They were all involved with the law in some kind of way."
Steele nodded. "Can we narrow it down anymore?"
Laura smiled, just a little. "It would have to be someone who washigh up enough to know their movements and someone close enough to know mine."
The man known as Remington Steele held out his hand, sighing theatrically. "I am at your service Miss Holt."
Columbo knocked on the door, waiting patiently until Matthew Wargrave answered.
"What is--oh, it's you, Columbo. Sorry."
His annoyance faded at the sight of the police detective. He gestured for Columbo to come in and sit down. Sitting behind his massive oak desk, Wargrave grinned. "How can I help a poker buddy?"
The bedraggled detective chuckled and shook his head. "Well, Judge, you can start by reimbursing me that twenty bucks from a month ago."
Wargrave laughed. "Now, Columbo, you know I won that game of blackjack fair and square. It's not my fault you're such a lousy dealer."
He studied Columbo, knowing full well he was here for another reason. He had known him for too long. "What's up, Columbo?"
Columbo puffed away on his cigar. "Well, sir, it's this White LaceSlasher case. It just doesn't make sense."
Wargrave shrugged. "What's to make sense of? Steele did it. We were all there that night, remember? McGuire said Steele was holding Holt's body and can't account for his whereabouts on the nights of the other murders."
Columbo scratched his head thoughtfully. "Yeah, I guess you're right, Judge. But there's a few things I can't figure."
"Well, first of all, Steele was really concerned about Miss Holt's condition that night." Columbo threw up his hands in bewilderment. "I mean, I'm no expert on serial killers, but I don't think they're too concerned about their victims."
Judge Wargrave hooted with laughter. "Columbo, think about it. I've been a judge for years. I've seen this before. Sure he's concerned. The one person who can identify him is in critical condition. Of course he wants to know how she's doing."
Columbo shook his head. "No, no, sir. I know what you're talking about. Mr. Steele seemed relieved when I told him Miss Holt was okay."
Eyes narrowed in his direction. "Columbo, we're talking about a serial killer. There is no explaining their way of thinking."
Lieutenant Columbo grinned, sitting back in his chair. Thoughtfully, he studied Wargrave. "You know Matt--and mind you, I'm not claiming to be an expert. That would be you."
Another raised eyebrow. "Me?"
Taking a puff of his cigar, Columbo fidgeted with his well-worn trenchcoat. "Well, Matt, you've presided over more serial killer cases than even Tony Ciretto. I don't think even he sent as many people to the macadamia farm."
Wargrave smiled with obvious pride. "I just look at it as a challenge. Some of these serial killers are good. The way they go about picking their victims is almost ingenious, as is the skill they use to avoid the law. Some are downright brilliant, so good can they twist logic. But they're not perfect. The perfect crime has yet to be created."
Columbo's eyes twinkled. "Well, someone may have just pulled that off with this case."
Wargrave shook his head as he began going through some files. "If Steele had pulled it off, we wouldn't be having an all out manhunt for him now."
Columbo leaned forward. "With all due respect, sir...I'm not talking about Steele."
Wargrave slowly put down the file. "You don't think Steele did it?"
"No, sir. In fact, I agree with you."
"I think it is someone who's trying to pull off the perfect crime. Just like you said, sir."
Wargrave appeared dis-interested. "Really, Columbo, it was only a theory."
Columbo leaned over the desk, his half-smoked cigar between his fingers. "C'mon, sir, don't be modest. It's a great theory. And it fits. You should know. You were there both times."
"When I was in Murphy Michaels' hotel room and when Laura Holt was almost murdered."
Wargrave slammed down his law book. "Columbo, what the hell are you implying?"
Columbo waved his hands in surrender, cigar ashes flying everywhere. "Oh, nothing, sir. Nothing at all. I was just thinking out loud."
Wargrave was getting fairly angry by this time. His lanky frame seemed to grow from his emotions. Keeping his voice cold, he said slowly, "Columbo, because we're friends, I'm going to forget this conversation and the fact that you're practically accusing me of murder, which is called slander, by the way. Now, if you want to keep it that way, I suggest you leave."
Columbo bumbled his way toward the door. "Yes, sir. Sorry to offend you, sir." He opened the door to walk out.
"One more thing--"
"Nothing important, Judge. I just wanted to know if you heard Laura Holt scream that night?"
"Why the hell would I?"
"Well, sir, you do live around the corner from her."
"So what? That doesn't mean I can hear everything that goes on!"
Columbo figured he was pressing his luck. "Well, sir, if you do remember anything, please get in touch."
His only answer was a snort of derision.
Laura and Remington looked at each other in amazement. "Mr. Steele, I think we've got our man."
Remington cleared his throat. "Be that as it may, until we can prove I'm not the murderer, I'm still on the run and you're still in danger."
Both were startled by a knock on the door. Laura looked at Steele, slightly jumpy. She gestured for him to hide. Taking a deep breath, she looked through the peephole to see two officers standing on her front step. *Okay, Laura, icy calm.*
She opened the door slightly. "Yes? Oh...uh...hi. Sorry. I’ve been a little jumpy lately." Laura feigned relief as she stepped outside.
The first officer nodded in greeting. "I can understand that, Miss Holt. There were a bunch of reporter--"
"Yes, I know. I was here." Seeing the officers' surprised looks, she added, "I snuck in through the back door by going around the block."
The second officer smirked. "On the grounds of unusual circumstances, we'll ignore the fact that you trespassed on someone else's property."
Laura smiled, secretly hoping they couldn't hear her heart pounding. "Well, what can I do for you?"
The two men looked at each other uneasily. "Miss Holt, are you staying here alone tonight?"
Laura shrugged. "Oh, I don't know. I thought I would, but if I get jumpy, I may go to a friend's house."
The first officer, Baker, looked concerned. "Ma'am, maybe that would be a good idea."
"Well, ma'am, we got a report that Remington Steele had been seen around here."
Laura swallowed, knowing full well there was only one person who could have made that call. Thank God they thought her reaction was fear.
"Don't worry, Miss Holt. We're conducting a thorough search of the area. Would you like us to search your house?"
Suddenly, Laura didn't feel very well.
Remington could hear the conversation from under Laura's bed. He couldn't let them find him here. He didn't want her accused of aiding a suspected murderer. He knew he had to make a break for it. For Laura's sake. For her life. Remington heard her talking. He smiled. Grace Kelly was a wonderful actress, but she couldn't hold a candle to Laura's talent for improvisation.
Laura bit her lip. If she refused, they would be suspicious. If she didn't, Mr. Steele would be arrested. Laura couldn't believe what she was about to do. "Maybe you should. But, truthfully, I still don't think Mr. Steele did it."
The second officer, Poncharelli, nodded. "Ma'am, I can understand why you might feel that way, but even if he is innocent, he is a fugitive."
Laura nodded in surrender and let them in.
Remington quickly moved by the door. As the door pushed open, he jammed it back, knocking the wind out of the two officers. Jumping over them, he took off, stealing one last look at Laura before running off into the coming night.
Berniece had checked all the profiles of the victims for Murphy and gotten those addresses for Laura. She was still nowhere with any new developments, though. The blaring ring of the phone interrupted her thoughts.
"Remington Steele Investiga-tions."
That accented brogue came through the line. "Miss Wolf, I'm in a bit of a jam here and Laura's in a lot of danger."
Berniece fumbled for a pen and paper. "Where the hell are you?"
"Not important. I need a favor, Miss Wolf."
She was getting damned annoyed. "Look, Steele, where the hell are you? Last time Laura called it was to get addresses to save your neck. What the hell is going on?"
"I ran to keep her from being brought up on charges of aiding andabetting. Have Murphy and Rockford come up with anything?"
"I don't know. They haven't called. Look--"
"I need you to tell them to get to Laura as quickly as possible. I don't want her alone. We figured out who's in charge of this game."
Writing the message down, Berniece asked, "Anything else?"
"Yes. Call Lieutenant Columbo and tell him what I'm about to tell you. Laura's life depends on it."
Berniece wrote like a bat out of hell, saying a silent prayer for her best friend and the con for whom she had a slight affection.
He walked through the apartment, taking time to admire the elegance of the room. He spotted the Casablanca poster. A very goodmovie. Walking into the dining room, he pulled out a whites silk scarf and a white rose from his bag. Grinning, he arranged the objects on Steele's dining room table. The great Remington Steele--a murderer whose murdering spree had ended with the death of his lover. Oh, he could see the headlines now. A crime to go down in the annals of law.
He fingered the white silk scarf, enjoying the feel of its smooth texture. There would be Steele, rushing like a white knight to save Laura Holt only to be left once again standing over her still body with no alibi. This little token would lead Steele exactly where he wanted him.He knew Steele would come here. It was the only place left for him to go.
Murphy and Rockford walked into Beth's office, only to find the normally unflappable attorney in a panic.
Rockford grabbed her arm. "Beth, what's going on?"
"Berniece just called. She heard from Steele. Laura and Steele figured it out! They know who did it! Laura could be in big trouble!"
Rockford looked at Murphy. "That's more than we've got. We're still stuck with a hand full of suspects and busted leads!"
Beth looked at them. "I asked Berniece who Laura and Steele think did it. We completely missed the obvious!"
Beth was already grabbing her coat and was on her way out the door. "C'mon! Steele told Berniece Laura was still at home! I'll tell you in the car."
Ciretto took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. It was getting pretty late and he was ready to go take care of unfinished business. He heard a knock on the door. "Come in!"
He was not too surprised to see Columbo poke his head through the door. "Columbo, what do you want? I’m getting ready to head out of here."
Columbo shrugged. "I know, sir. This won't take long. I just have a few questions."
"Well, can you be quick about it?"
The police detective grinned. "Tell me, Judge, do you ever get tired of playing the law game?"
Anthony Ciretto was confused. "I don't understand."
Columbo picked up a folder bulging with information on the White Lace Slasher. "Planning a good night's read? Who'd want to collect a scrapbook on a serial killer?"
The judge smiled. "I'm a judge. It's my job to know the criminals better than they know themselves. Also, this is a fascinating case."
Ciretto smirked as he offered Columbo a cigar. "It's almost poetic the way the murders are carried out. Rather Jack the Ripperish, don't you think?"
Columbo grimaced. "Sir, fascinating is not the word I had inmind."
He watched as Ciretto replaced the folder. The judge watered his small rose bush as he spoke. "To me, it's fascinating. I'm not as much an expert on criminal psychology as Matt Wargrave is, but I do know that most of these serial killers have a genius IQ."
"Yeah, that's what Judge Wargrave said." To himself, Columbo mumbled, "Curiouser and curiouser."
"What was that?"
"Nothing, sir. I guess I'd better get home. The misses doesn't like to be kept waiting. Good night, Judge."
"Good Night, Columbo."
Laura sat on her couch, absently petting Nero. She vaguely heard a voice on the phone saying something about a fugitive and second attempt. She heard the word Steele. A hand clapped her on the shoulder. She jumped slightly and looked up to stare into the blue eyes of Officer Jon Baker. Wrong blue eyes, she thought wryly. He was saying something.
He smiled. "Sorry to startle you, but I just wanted to let you know we've put out an APB on Steele."
Laura nodded. Baker looked at her worriedly. He had run into her a few times before when she was working with the police on a case. She always seemed so sure of herself. Not tonight though. Tonight she looked small and frightened. He cleared his throat, kneeling down next to her.
"Miss Holt, you shouldn't be alone tonight. Why don't you stay with someone?"
She looked up, uncertain. "I--I'll go to my friend's place." She ran her hands through her thick chestnut hair.
Baker's partner came up. "Well, it's an all out manhunt. You and I have to patrol the highway tonight and all surrounding areas."
Jon Baker nodded. Turning back to Laura, he asked, "Miss Holt, would you like one of us to stay with you until you leave?"
Laura knew she should say yes, but she couldn't. Just in case. Mr. Steele couldn't run forever and she wanted at least one place he could go.
"Ma'am?" The dark haired cop tapped her on the shoulder. Laura looked up. "Huh? Oh, I'm sorry. I'm just...not really with it right now."
The two cops nodded in understanding. Laura smiled shakily. "But, no thanks. I'll be okay. I’m just going to pack a few things and get out of here."
Baker and Ponch exchanged a glance. "Okay, if you say so. We'lllet ourselves out."
Laura gave a half-hearted wave and got up to lock the door behind them. She watched the night sky through the window. Mr. Steele, be careful.
Laura was scared, which made her angry. She had never liked the feeling of losing all control. *That's enough of this. I'm getting out of here for tonight. We know who did it, now all we have to do is prove it.*
She heard a noise outside. She moved away from the window, suddenly very afraid of what the nighttime shadows might hide.
He smiled. He knew she was in there. She would come out to investigate the noise. It was inevitable. He had heard the police radio station put out an APB on Steele. The game was very close to finish. A shame really. It had grown to be quite a gamble. He pushed at the garbage can again, creating more noise. She would come out and Steele would come for her.
Steele hid within the shadows of the alley. He knew how to get to his apartment without being seen. He had made sure of that his first night in this place. Service entrances and air conditioning shafts were useful things if used right. He knew Columbo would come. He just hoped it would be without the backup of the ever vigilant LAPD.
Steele gritted his teeth. The animal in charge of this game knew his every move and it was not a nice feeling. Steele knew what he had done. The maniac maneuvered the game so this would be the only place left for him to go...the only place left unguarded. What would he find when he got up there? Laura, her lovely form dressed in white bra and panties, her long neck snapped in two? *Don't even think old sport.*
God, he hated leaving her behind like that. When he got his hands--a siren wailed in the distance. He ducked deeper into the darkness. Time to talk to Columbo. He ran toward the service elevator.
Columbo sat in Steele's apartment, wondering where he was. Berniece Foxe, the Agency's secretary, had called him, saying it was urgent that Steele see him alone. Columbo looked around the apartment. Nice digs. Classy, just like Steele. He wondered briefly if Steele would bring Laura with him. Columbo grinned. Those two made a pretty cute couple. He'd tell 'em that, too, just as soon as this case was wrapped up.
He heard the lock click. Standing up, he saw the door open on a very bedraggled Remington Steele. "Mr. Steele. Nice place you got here. The misses would love it."
"Columbo, we figured out who the murderer is. I need your help. Laura's life is on the line."
Laura heard the noise again. *Maybe Nero just snuck outside and it getting into the garbage can again.* She shook her head. She hadn't let Nero out. Laura ran to her bedroom, pulling the pistol out of her nightstand drawer. She didn't like guns, but right about now, it was the only protection she had. Her eyes focused briefly on the gun's manufacturer. Remington. *No, don't think about it right now.*
Quietly, she opened the back door, staying in the doorway. She heard a twig snap next to her. Something grabbed her, a hand covering her mouth with a rag. Another hand wrestled the gun out of her grasp, twisting her wrist painfully. Laura recognized the burning in her throat. Chloroform. She struggled against the growing heaviness in her throat. Barely coherent, she tried to pull against the figure. A voice whispered in her ear. "Don't fight it, Miss Holt. It makes it easier...at least, that's what the serial killers tell me."
Rockford drove quickly to Laura's house, doing his best to maintain some semblance of obeying traffic laws. They had heard the radio reports. Murphy finally spoke. "I hope she's all right."
Rockford looked at Murphy. "Murph, I hope they're both all right."
Beth leaned forward. "Maybe we should have gotten a few cops tocome along as backup."
"Too late now. Damn it, Jim, can't you go any faster?"
Rockford's eyes never left the road. "Murphy, I’m going as fast as I can. This is LA, not Wyoming."
Beth tapped Murphy on the shoulder. "Where the hell is Steele?"
"I don't know." Murphy looked out the back window. "Berniece said he wouldn't say where he was calling from."
Rockford jammed the gas up to 80mph. "Do you think he went backto her house?"
Murphy's expression was deadly serious. "I hope so," he saidquietly.
Columbo listened to Steele intently. Steele leaned on his fireplace. "Columbo, someone is trying to murder Laura! Damn it, we should be there trying to bring him in. We know who it is--"
"So do I, sir. And to set your mind at ease, I think I got enough proof to get you off the hook."
Steele stared at the grubby looking detective. "Columbo, we have to get to Laura. It was Wargrave. He's crazy! As long as that man's on the loose, Laura's--"
Out of the corner of his eye, Remington saw something on the table. A piece of white silk and a white rose.
He admired her slender form, now adorned in the white lingerie, exposing every curve and leaving little to the imagination. He smiled. This is what she would look like when they found her, when they found Steele standing over her lifeless body. Wargrave heard Laura moan and walked over to her, helping her sit up. Laura shook her head slightly as she tried to shake off the grogginess. Had she fallen asleep? Her muscles ached and she felt so cold--Laura's mind flashed back. *Oh, God.*
She heard the dignified voice of Judge Matthew Wargrave. "Good evening, Miss Holt. I was wondering when you were going to wake up."
He saw her shivering slightly. Picking up the blanket he had with him, he draped over her. "I figured you'd be cold. Forgive my rudeness."
Laura stared at the revered judge in amazement. She tried to speak, but her tongue felt too large for her mouth. Finally, she managed to get out the words. "Judge, why--how--you're guilty of eight murders and framing someone? You're ruining your life. Why?"
Wargrave laughed. "As I'm sure you and Mr. Steele have figured out by now, for the thrill of it, of course." Leaning closer to a horrified Laura, he asked, "Tell me, Miss Holt, the work you and I do...fighting crime...we know all the tricks to stop those who commit crimes. But haven't you ever wondered what it would be like to get away with murder?"
Steele stared at the white rose and silk on the table, unable to do anything.
Columbo studied the things before turning back to Steele. "I guess it's a safe bet to say these were left by the murderer. But why?"
Steele didn't answer him. He picked up the phone and dialed Laura's number. One ring. Two rings. Three rings. "C'mon woman. Pick up the phone!" After six rings, he threw down the phone and started to walk out the door.
"Mr. Steele, wait! Where do you think you're going?"
Remington turned around, a desperate expression on his face. "Columbo, Wargrave has Laura! I won't let her die! I want to find that animal! Enough is enough! I won't let him kill her!"
Columbo stepped in front of Steele. "Mr. Steele, you're still a wanted man--"
"Damn it, Columbo, I don't care! Laura--"
"Whether I think you're innocent or not isn't the issue. You're still wanted. And you have to prove it's Wargrave. Try calling his house."
A few minutes later, Remington slammed down the receiver. "No answer, no clues, no nothing except that damn piece of silk and that white rose--" His voice trailed off. *The beach. Just like in the movies. He took her to die on the beach.* "Columbo, I know where she is!"
He pointed to the rose. "Scotch roses! The only place I’ve ever seen them grown is at Ocean Side Park by the beach! The botanical garden by the beach."
Columbo stared at him. "How do you know?"
"Just like the movie..."
Steele shook his head. "Never mind. Just trust me on this. Now please let me out of here. I’ve got to get to Laura."
Columbo puffed on his cigar as he looked at the rose. All of a sudden he grinned. "Well, we have at least one piece of evidence to prove Wargrave is the murderer."
Remington tensed. "Fine. Let's go!"
"First, let's call for some backup." He picked up the phone,dialing.
After a few seconds, a line picked up. "Chapman? Yeah, Columbo. Look, get a bunch of boys over to Ocean Side Park by the botanical garden. And put out an APB for Judge Wargrave's arrest. I have Steele with me--don't ask questions, just do it! Laura Holt's life may depend on it!"
He barely had time to hang up the phone before Steele grabbed himby the arm and dragged him toward the door. "C'mon. If that bloody maniac has touched Laura, I'll kill him myself."
Murphy banged on the door. "Laura? Laura! Open up!" He turned to Rockford. "Go around the back. Take the flashlight."
Rockford and Beth went through the gate. Murphy pulled hislockpick out and bent down. A light shined on him. "You! What are you doing?"
He held his hands above his eyes to see a cop shining a flashlightat him. "I'm Murphy Michaels of Remington Steele Investigations. My partner Laura Holt lives here. We think--"
"Murphy! Get back here!"
Murphy and the officer ran into the backyard to see Rockford and Beth bending down by Laura's back step. "What is it?"
Rockford shined a light on the grass by the step. "Look. Mud's been pulled up and the grass is going in every direction. And look at the leaves. They're crushed." His expression was grim. "It looks like there was a struggle."
The cop's walkie-talkie crackled. His partner's voice sounded above the static. "Jack, we've got an APB out for Judge Wargrave. We have to get to Ocean Side Park. They think he's got the Holt girl there."
The cop looked at the three people. "Follow us."
Laura stared in horror as the venerable old judge continued to speak, occasionally glancing in her direction. He posed his question again. "Well, Miss Holt, tell me, haven't you ever gotten tired of solving the puzzle. Isn't it much more rewarding to create a puzzle?"
Laura forced herself to remain calm. Icy calm. *Keep him talking.*
"Uhh...no. I've always enjoyed the challenge of cracking a master scam artist's con."
Wargrave nodded in agreement. "Absolutely. It's so glorious to see them writhing in panic when they know they'll be convicted."
"But that's a jury's job, not yours! You're not God! You have no right to decide who lives and who dies!"
Matthew Wargrave stared at the young woman, surprised at heroutburst. "Playing God? What an interesting way of putting it." He smiled malevolently. "No, Miss Holt, I prefer to think of it as playing devil's advocate. My entire career, I've handed down the fates of common criminals. I have no regrets. I did my job and I did it well. However," he turned back to Laura, "I've also read case histories of some of the most famous crimes of all times. Jack the Ripper, for instance. Do you know that debates still rage on over his identity?"
Laura said nothing, merely bided her time, moving closer to the opening of the cave, waiting for a moment to get away from him. The judge appeared to be talking more to himself than to her now. "Miss Holt, a case like that has yet to be cracked. In the layman's term, Jack the Ripper was nothing more than another murderer. But think of the strategies he used to elude Scotland Yard. He was more than a genius. He was an artist. Don't you see, my dear?"
Her brown eyes widened. *You're crazy! You are absolutely insane!* Laura felt disgusted, sickened, and very frightened for her life. "You murdered eight innocent women and framed two innocent men. One may go to jail for your crimes! And that's an art to you?" Her voice was strangled as she yelled. "A game?"
Wargrave grinned. "Not a game, Miss Holt. Deadly serious."
He pulled the piece of white silk from his pocket, the moonlight streaming into the opening of the cave shining on its satiny surface. "But tell me, do you think I've done just as good a job, if not better?"
Her coldness masking her terror, Laura couldn't help but smirk triumphantly. "Not really. If you had, Mr. Steele and I would have never figured out you did it."
Wargrave eyed her. "Yes, but where will it get you?" He slowly walked toward her, stretching the white silk out to its full length.
Laura huddled against the wall, wrapping the blanket tighter aroundherself, praying for a chance at escape. "So you know I did it. So what? You are the only witness. Steele has no alibi, all your friends, Rockford and Michaels, have are suppositions, and Columbo has no way of proving anything. Without you around to verify their accusations, I will have created the unsolvable crime." He laughed as he saw the terror in her eyes. "Rather funny, don't you think? The law-abiding judge creating the unsolvable crime."
Wargrave lunged for her.
The ride in Columbo's car was an eternity. Steele's eyes were fixed straight ahead, his mind intent on one thing--Laura. Laura's life. If she died, he wouldn't wait for the police. He would extract vengeance on Wargrave tenfold. Laura's face came into his mind and Remington knew when he found her, he would want to do nothing more than hold her and gaze into those brown eyes and reassure himself that she was very much alive. If she was--*No! Don't even think it!*
Columbo looked at the man in his passenger seat. "We're almost there, sir. Just a few more minutes."
The car had barely parked in front of Ocean Side Park before Steele was out the door running toward the botanical garden on the beach. Columbo jumped out of the car. "Mr. Steele, wait a minute! Backup's comin'!"
He took off after Steele. He knew what was spurring Steele on. He was damned if he wasn't worried about the girl himself, but he had to stop him. If Laura was dead already, Columbo knew Wargrave was already gone and Steele would once again be standing over her still body with no witness and no alibi.
Columbo heard the sirens getting closer. C'mon boys "Steele! Wait a minute!"
As Wargrave lunged for her, Laura threw the blanket over him. She bolted out of the cave, spurred on by the rush of freedom she now felt. The icy wind whipped around her bare arms and legs. Her teeth were chattering and she was freezing. She didn't see the dip in the sand. Her foot caught in the hole, twisting slightly. She fell, hitting her head on something. Struggling against a haze of pain and dizziness, she tried to get up. A hand yanked her up, pulling at her long, dark hair.
An animalistic instinct to survive took over in Laura as she kicked and screamed, digging her nails into Judge Wargrave's arms. In the back of her mind, she remembered reading somewhere once that he was an ex-Marine.
He pulled her against him, managing to wrap the silk around her neck, tightening it slowly. Laura again heard that dignified voice whispering in her ear. "I told you not to struggle, Miss Holt. It will hurt less that way. Don't think of it as dying. Just think of it as having a part in the greatest crime in history."
Already dizzy from the blow to her head, Laura couldn't fight against the blackness overtaking her. Her body went limp in Wargrave's arms. He smiled. He didn't want her to suffer needlessly, hence the unconsciousness. Strangulation was much less painful than drowning. He lifted her into his arms and walked toward the ocean. "Rest in peace, Miss Holt. And rest in peace, Remington Steele."
Murphy, Rockford, and Beth pulled up to Ocean Side Park behind their police escort. They heard Columbo giving orders to find Wargrave and Laura. Spotting them, Columbo shouted, "Steele's gonna need all the backup he can get. My boys have their orders. Go with 'em."
Murphy and Rockford took off with the rest of the group toward the beach. Beth tapped Columbo on the shoulder. "Anything I can do?"
"Yeah, call the lab and ask if they got that info I asked for. Also, an ambulance is coming. Direct it down to the beach."
Remington heard a piercing shriek break the stillness of the nightair. Upon reaching the botanical garden, he saw someone, tall and thin, dump a small figure into the ocean. "No!!!"
Steele ran down the path and jumped toward Wargrave. The judge was too quick for him and delivered a blow to his jaw that sent Steele sprawling into the sand. Steele didn't even notice Wargrave take off. He ran into the ocean, grabbing at anything that brushed his leg. He heard a chopper overhead. A searchlight shined on the water.
His blue eyes saw something bob up in the water. He grabbed at the object. He almost fell to his knees to thank God as he pulled Laura from the water. Laying her on the beach, he ripped the white silk from her bruised neck. Feeling for a pulse, he shook her. "C'mon, Laura! C'mon, lady, snap out of it!"
He stuck his finger down her throat in an attempt to open the trachea. "Laura!"
Remington began CPR, panting from his exertions. Bending down over her, he began mouth-to-mouth. He pumped her chest harder, willingaway the ache in his arms. Someone tried to pull him back. "Leave me alone!" He threw their arms off.
Laura's normally pretty face was pale and her lips and fingers were beginning to turn blue.
"C'mon, Laura! Damn you, don't you die on me! Breathe, Laura! Breathe!" He continued the compressions, pumping so hard, Laura's thin body was lifted slightly off the ground. "Laura, damn you! Wake up!"
Tears clouded Remington's eyes as he fought for Laura's life. This was the reason he never stayed in one place, never stayed with one person for very long. The pain. Better to travel lightly and not care instead of burning with desire only to have her taken away. She couldn't leave him. For once in his life, he would fight for someone's life other than his own. He would fight for Laura.
Murphy tried to pull him away from Laura. "Steele, she's gone." His voice was choked with tears. Remington pushed him back. "No, she's not!" It was the yell of a madman.
Columbo watched a desperate man try to restore life into the girl's body, A few cops started to take Laura away from Steele. Columbo shook his head at them. He had to let Steele try. Laura Holt was too young to die.
Steele continued CPR. Laura hadn't so much as moved. He wouldn't let her die! The man known as Remington Steele began to slap her across the cheek, trying to restore consciousness. His desperation took over. The slaps became harder and harder. Blood appeared from Laura's nose and at the corner of her mouth, trickling under her jaw, down to her chest, staining the white bra a brilliant red.
"I won't let you leave me!" Steele shook her, shouting obscenities. "Laura, damn you, youbloody wench! I've never seen you back down from anything! Fight, damn you! Fight for me! Damn it, Laura, *breathe!*"
He pushed down hard on her chest. A gagging sound was heard as water was pushed from Laura's throat. Her chest heaved as the water ran down the side of her mouth, diluting the blood from Steele's slaps. Laura's breathing was labored and her pulse was slow, but she was alive. Definitely alive.
Steele sent a thankful prayer to a merciful God. He cradled Laura to his chest, bending his head down to kiss the top of hers, his tears wetting her hair. He noticed she was starting to shiver. Looking up, he snapped at a cop, "Get a blanket."
He felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked up to see Murphy smiling wide, his eyes wet with unshed tears. "Thank God you didn't pick today to start listening to me."
Steele started to make a retort but was stopped by chuckles from Rockford and Beth. He felt Laura's chest moving up and down in rhythm with his own. He grinned at Murphy. "Murphy, old chap, I knew there was a reason for never listening to you."
Columbo cleared his throat. They all looked at him, standing there grinning at the scene before him. "Mr. Steele, sir, we have the ambulance right over there. Why don't you go to the hospital with Miss Holt?"
Murphy spoke up. "Rockford, Beth, and I will follow. And I'll call Berniece. She's got to be worried sick."
Remington nodded, reluctantly letting them tear Laura away from him. He stood up, facing Columbo. "Thank you, Lieutenant."
Columbo waved away his gratitude. "Sir, you saved Laura's life, not me. That's one tough lady. Thank her when she wakes up. She's the one who got you off the hook."
Steele smiled before climbing into the ambulance. He never let go of Laura's hand the entire way there.
The doctor walked out to meet the group in the waiting area. "Mr. Steele?"
"Yes? How is she?" The handsome man jumped up, pushing his black hair off his forehead. The others crowded behind him.
The doctor broke into a wide smile. "She's going to be fine. That girl is one helluva a wildcat."
Berniece sniffed loudly, hugging Murphy. Remington's grincould have split his face in two. He closed his eyes, inhaling deeply. "Thank, God."
"But," the doctor added, "I'd like to keep her for her a day or two. She was knocked on the head, even though there was no concussion and she did stop breathing. Also, her heart did stop. She has some internal and tracheal bruising as well as external bruising and contusions. She'll be fine, but I want to keep her here, just to be sure."
Steele nodded. He needed to see her, to reassure himself that she was alive and well. "May...may I see her?"
The doctor shook her head. "No. Not until morning. No questions either, Lieutenant." She looked pointedly at Columbo, who merely grinned.
"No buts, Mr. Steele. I want Miss Holt to sleep and she can do that with visitors, no matter how well meaning. Tomorrow. Now, my prescription for all of you is hot showers, a decent meal, and sleep. Good night."
Before anyone had a chance to argue, she turned on her heel and left.
Everyone turned to look at each other before bursting into laughter. As they quieted down, Berniece asked Steele, "What did Laura find? I'm still really curious as to why she asked for a list of who was around when you were arrested."
Steele shrugged. "It was a case of things falling right into place. Laura said the one thing that bothered her was that somebody seemed to know our every move before we took a step."
Murphy looked at him. "Yeah, but we had already come up with thetheory that it had to be someone on the police force or at the courthouse."
Nodding, Steele continued. "I know. And all those women who were killed all worked at either the courthouse or the station."
"Except for Miss Holt."
Remington tipped his head in acknowledgment to Columbo. "Right. And there was the anonymous phone tip about me--both times. Laura just figured it had to be someone around her. That's when we started matching up address with the list provided by Miss Wolf." He grinned at Berniece,who shot him a dirty look before breaking into one of her own.
Rockford turned to Columbo. "Yeah, but what was the evidence you found?"
Columbo and Steele told them about the white rose in his apartment. Columbo shrugged. "I played poker at Wargrave's house a few times, remember? I recognized them. So, I had somebody down at the lab run a check on it and match with the rose bush in Wargrave's backyard. Traces of the fertilizer matched."
Everyone nodded in understanding. Columbo continued speaking. "Also, Wargrave donated a few of those Scotch rose bushes to Ocean Side Park's botanical garden a few years back."
Beth looked confused. "I still don't get why, after all that planning--I mean, we were all stumped--he would do something that stupid."
Remington shrugged. "I guess it's safe to say pride caused him to make the mistake of arrogance." His voice dropped to a whisper. "Thank God we got to Laura in time."
It was a sobering end to a stressful night.
Steele felt much better after his shower. He had been worried sick over Laura at home, so he pestered her doctor enough to gain a sleeping area on the waiting room couch. After last night, he didn't want to be too far away from her. He walked to her room, grinning like a bloody idiot.
He raised his hand to knock on the door when he heard Laura laugh slightly and a man's muffled response. Poking his head in the door, Steele was greeted by the pretty brunette, who greeted him with a wide smile and those wondrous brown eyes...and Columbo. Laura greeted him merrily as she waved him in. "Mr. Steele!"
Her voice was husky from the bruises on her throat. He walked up to the bed, giving her a pink rose and a gentle kiss on her forehead. "Miss Holt. How are you feeling?"
"Alive. Very much alive." He didn't miss the slight shudder that went through her body. He greeted Columbo, who merely smirked.
"Mr. Steele, I was just telling Miss Holt that with her evidence and statement plus my evidence, I am happy to announce you free of all charges, in case you haven't seen this morning's paper."
Laura grimaced. "Yeah. The nurse had to chase the reporters out of here with a stick."
Steele sat on the edge of the bed next to Laura, taking her hand."I don't know how to thank you, Columbo. At least Wargrave will pay for his crimes—small comfort though that may be to the victims' families."
Columbo looked decidedly uncomfortable. "Don't mention it, sir. But I think the only place Wargrave's gonna pay for his crimes is in eternity." Seeing their puzzled looks, he explained. "He hung himself in his cell last night."
Steele felt a river of rage wash over him as he wrapped his arm around Laura. Remembering how close he had come to losing her because of Wargrave, he muttered under his breath, "Coward."
Laura leaned into him, grateful for his closeness.
Columbo sensed their need to be alone. He got up and shook Steele's hand. "Mr. Steele, it's been nice to know you."
"Thank you, Columbo."
"Don't mention it."
The police detective smiled as he patted Laura's hand. "Miss Holt, it's been a pleasure to work with you. I wish half the cops on the force had your skill. Don't let 'em get you down, honey."
Laura leaned forward and placed a kiss on Columbo's cheek. "Columbo, you're a sweetheart."
"So are you, Miss Holt. Well, I'll be going." Right before he walked out, Columbo turned to them, a twinkle in his eye. Oh, just one more thing. Y'know, I was just telling the misses this last night. You two make a great team." With a wink, he was gone.
They both stared at each other before bursting into laughter. Composing themselves, they looked at each other again. Remington finally studied Laura closely. Her neck was covered in bruises and there were bruises and cuts all over her arms. He didn't want to look at her face. There was still dried blood at the corner of her mouth and nose and Laura's cheeks and jaw was covered in bluish purple welts from the slaps he had given her to bring her back to consciousness.
Remington looked away, embarrassed by what he had done to her. A soft hand touched his arm.
"Mr. Steele, are you all right?"
Remington laughed slightly as he looked at Laura. Gently moving a strand of hair away from her face, he looked down again, speaking quietly. "I...I'm sorry Laura. I didn't know I hit you that ha--"
"No." Laura freed her hand from his and covered his mouth. "Mr. Steele, you saved my life. I don't care how you did it. I'm alive. Thank you."
She leaned over, kissing him softly on the cheek. As Laura started to pull away, Remington moved so that his lips met hers. Cupping the side of her face, he felt her flinch in pain, but she didn't pull away. The kiss was soft, sweet, long, intimate, thankful. As they finally pulled apart from each other, Remington wondered what Laura would do if he told her she tasted as sweet as the Irish rains. He smiled. Probably laugh that wildchild laugh of hers.
The detective and the thief stared at each other for a few moments before she leaned back into his embrace, taking comfort in the arms which had saved her life and the mouth which had breathed that life back into her.