The Bicoastal, Bilocated, Fly-By-Murder Case

The Bicoastal, Bilocated Fly-By Murder Case

Author: Martin Ross

Category: Columbo/X-Files crossover

Rating: PG-13 for language

Summary: When America’s top horror writer

scares up a murderous doppelganger, Lt. Columbo

summons Special Agent Fox Mulder to help bring

a supernatural killer to justice.

Disclaimer: I dedicate this paean to the

inverted mystery to Chris Carter and Mssrs.

Levinson and Link, the creators of two of my

favorite investigators.

Vista del Sol Hotel

Beverly Hills

9:34 p.m.

Lt. Columbo meditated as the M.E.’s people

hauled away the remains of America’s departed

New Crown Prince of Horror (New York Times).

The homicide detective gazed across the now-

deserted deck of the Vista del Sol’s Olympian

pool at the hotel’s luxurious lobby, his eyes

suddenly alighting.

Raincoat flapping, he corralled the distressed

hotel manager, who’d been simultaneously

mourning the loss of one of his favorite

celebrity guests and contemplating how he’d

communicate the attending unfavorable publicity

to the Vista’s German-French ownership

consortium.

“Mr. Martel?” Columbo inquired, cautiously. The

manager looked up — the odd little policeman

already had asked about his $76 handmade,

imported Italian silk designer tie. “You said

Mr. Prinze had had dinner in the hotel

restaurant about an hour or so before he fell

into the pool.”

Martel blinked away his corporate anxieties.

“Yes, yes, that’s right, Lieutenant. The

maitre’d said he had the canard l’orange,

orange duck, our specialty du jour.”

Columbo looked baffled by what seemed a litany

of French. “Ah, yes, sir. Well, let me ask you

this.”

“Absolutely.”

“See, I had to be in court today, and I didn’t

get a chance to grab any lunch or nothing. You

guys serve chili? Cause I could sure go for a

bowl right about now.”

Martel paled. “I’m afraid today’s soup du

specialte is a chilled cream of cucumber with

tarragon.”

“Ah.” Columbo nodded sadly. “Bacon

cheeseburger?”

“I believe there’s a Jack-in-a-Box a few blocks

away, Lieutenant.”

“Hey, Columbo!” The pair turned toward Sgt.

Kramer’s gravelly voice. He was standing near

the mouth of the Vista del Sol’s winding stone

drive with a stout middle-aged woman in

brilliant chartreuse jogging regalia. “Got a

witness here, thinks she mighta seen the perp!”

Columbo put his hands to his mouth. “Just a

second, Sarge!” He returned to Martel. “You

know, chili’s real popular. You put it on the

menu, you might be surprised how much street

traffic you pull in. Just a thought.”

“And a very trenchant one, too,” the manager

said dryly.

The lieutenant was winded by the time he

scrambled down to the street. He held up a

hand, and Kramer patiently studied the evening

traffic until Columbo was through wheezing and

weaving.

“Mrs. Flossburton here was out for her evening

‘constitutional’ when the vic came down,” the

detective sergeant grunted.

“I looked up to see where he’d come from,” she

breathed in a moneyed British accent. “That’s

when I saw the killer. He was smiling, mind

you, bright as day.”

“Wow,” Columbo breathed. “That’s absolutely

amazing. Ma’am, I wonder if you wouldn’t mind

going with Sgt. Kramer down to headquarters. We

got a guy down there, you can describe somebody

to him and, well, it’s like one of those mall

artists–”

“I don’t need any police artist,” Mrs.

Flossburton said, digging into her Prada

handbag. “I have his picture right here.”

The volume she pulled out was thick and black,

a silver skull embossed on the cover. The title

was dwarfed by the name slashed above the

grinning Death’s head: Simon Khan.

Mrs. Flossburton turned the book over. A tall

man with a broad forehead, large brown eyes,

and Fu Manchu moustache glared into the camera.

“That’s him.”

Malibu Canyon

One day later

“Cool customer,” Sgt. Kramer grunted, staring

at Simon Khan’s glass-fronted home. The Maestro

of the Macabre waved cheerfully at the pair

from his stone stoop.

Columbo grinned ruefully. “I guess a fella like

that, writing all the time about murder and

monsters, probably doesn’t get too ruffled

about things.”

“Why would he? Man’s got a perfect alibi.”

“And we got a perfect witness. We just can’t

make both of them fit together. We just have to

work out how they fit.”

“I don’t see how that’s possible,” Kramer said

as they approached Columbo’s vintage (his term)

Peugeot.

The lieutenant wrenched the import’s door open

with a screech worthy of a Stephen King crypt,

and leaned on the frame. “Well, you know what

Sherlock Holmes said?”

Kramer sighed. “‘Why am I wearing this nutty

hat?'”

“No, Sergeant. He said when there isn’t any

possible way for something to happen, you gotta

consider the impossible. And I know just the

fella to help me do it.”

**

“You didn’t tell me this was going to be on the

final exam,” Special Agent Fox Mulder

complained.

Mulder had welcomed the Homicide cop’s call —

the paranormal investigator collected quirky

people like Midwest housewives collected

Hummels or pimply dateless twentysomethings

ST:DS9 memorabilia. He had been intrigued by

Lt. Columbo’s receptivity to some of the more

unorthodox elements of the Huykendall murder

case (see “Murder With a Future” at

http://www.planetpreset.com/murdfut.html.

“There’s a killer, real smart guy, who has a

perfect alibi miles away from the murder

scene,” Columbo repeated. “But a witness — a

very reliable witness — swears she saw the guy

in the room with the victim right after the

victim went off a 14th floor balcony. And the

guy’s very unusual-looking.”

“Wait a minute,” Mulder interjected. “Is this

the Daniel Prinze murder? The horror writer?”

“That’s the fella.”

“So I assume your killer was a critic.”

“Geez, I kinda like the guy’s books. You ever

read that one he wrote about the demon who gets

elected president?”

“Hell to the Chief. An American literary

treasure. So who do you think killed Prinze?”

“Get a load of this, Agent Mulder. Simon Khan.”

Mulder leaned forward. “Get outta here. The

Simon Khan? He writes circles around that hack

Prinze.”

“Yeah, he’s a hell of a writer, all right. But

Mr. Prinze’s manager, she tells me Mr. Khan’s

got like, oh, ah, a mental blot.”

“Block, Lieutenant. Well, I guess at two novels

a year over the last 20 years or so, plus seven

books worth of short stories, he was bound to

tap out. You trying to tell me Khan killed

Prinze out of jealousy? The washed-up master

and the hack kid?”

“We-e-ell, there mighta been a little more to

it than that. See, Mr. Khan, he was about to

make a big sale to one of the studios. You ever

read Kenneth?”

“Wow, yeah. Guy convinced he’s trapped in some

parallel universe, or is he? Classic modern

fable of dislocation and alienation in the

post-9/11 world. They’re making a movie out of

Kenneth?”

“They were, I guess. Then the studio changed

its mind and signed up to do three of Prinze’s

books. Manager said they got Jennifer Lopez to

star in the one, oh, you know, the one about

the lesbian zombies?”

Mulder groaned. “Ghoul-on-Ghoul?”

“Yeah, that’s the one. Mr. Prinze just found

out about the movie deal the day before he was

killed. He lives near San Diego — he was at

the Vista del Sol, fancy-shmancy hotel in

Beverly Hills — for some news conference or

something. We traced a call from the hotel to

Mr. Khan’s house out in Malibu, maybe about an

hour before he went off the balcony.”

“Really? What’d Khan have to say about that?”

“Said Mr. Prinze called him to tell him about

the big movie deal.”

“Youch.”

Columbo chuckled. “Yeah, I guess Mr. Prinze

didn’t know nothing about Mr. Khan losing out

on his movie deal. Mr. Khan says Mr. Prinze

wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. Uh,

that was Mr. Khan’s words, Agent. Anyways, Mr.

Prinze didn’t seem to know Mr. Khan wasn’t real

crazy about him.”

“How long had Khan known Prinze?”

“The manager says they met right after the

Columbine thing, you know, the two boys that

shot up the high school? Terrible thing. Mr.

Khan got a buncha horror writers together for

some kinda teen suicide charity thing. Started

a foundation for troubled kids.”

“Face Your Fears. Heard of it. So you say Khan

has a perfect alibi?”

“Oh, yeah, a party at his place. We got a

hundred or so people will vouch for him.”

“Then why do you believe he killed Prinze?”

Columbo paused. “Well, I guess you could call

it a policeman’s hunch. Or maybe that Mrs.

Flossburton, our witness, swears Mr. Khan was

in that room when Mr. Prinze went off the

balcony.

“Or it could be what Mr. Khan said when I went

to question him about Mr. Prinze’s death. I

mentioned the off-possibility it coulda been a

suicide – which I don’t think it was, cause

when he had supper earlier, Mr. Prinze asked

his waiter about the next day’s dooger.”

“Dooger?”

“The thing, you know, like the blue plate

special, only fancier.”

“The specialty du jour.”

“Yeah. That’s it. Seems he was torn between

a couple of the dishes on the menu, and so he

wanted to know what the hotel restaurant would

have the next day so he wouldn’t have beef two

days in a row, or chicken, or…”

“So why would Prinze have been interested in

the next day’s special if he was going to take

a swan dive off a balcony?” Mulder summarized

smoothly. “I gotta say, it’s a little weak.”

“Well, there was also an open bottle of

champagne in the room – room service brought it

up after Mr. Prinze’s manager called him with

some more details on the movie deal. The hotel

sent that bottle up only about 15 minutes

before Mr. Prinze was killed. You gonna open a

couple hundred dollar bottle of bubbly if you

aren’t gonna be around to drink it? And, oh

yeah, there was no note. Nothing in the room or

on his laptop.”

“That’s a little more solid. But why’s any of

this point to Khan?”

“Because,” Columbo said meaningfully, “it

wasn’t me that made that point about the

champagne. When I mentioned that we didn’t

think Mr. Prinze had killed himself, Mr. Khan

said that made sense, cause why would he pop

open a bottle of Dom Perignon right before he

does the dutch? Now, Mr. Prinze ordered that

bottle quite a bit after he called Mr. Khan.

When I pressed him about how he knew about the

champagne, Mr. Khan said he woulda ordered up a

bottle if he’d just struck a big deal that was

gonna make him rich.”

“Why didn’t he just say Prinze told him he was

going to open a bottle of champagne to

celebrate? It would’ve made more sense, and

nobody would know for sure that wasn’t Prinze’s

plan.”

“Exactly!” The triumphant crispness of

Columbo’s exclamation startled Mulder. “And why

say Dom Perignon? Why go into that kinda

detail? Why not just say, ‘Mr. Prinze was gonna

open up some champagne’?”

“Because he’s playing you,” Mulder drawled.

“You told him you had a witness who could put

him in Prinze’s room, but he has an airtight

alibi, so why not have a little fun? He’s

daring you to catch him.”

“That’s why I called you, Agent Mulder. You

know all about this crazy stuff. Maybe you

could figure out some way he could be in two

places at one time. You fly out, I’ll show you

the town, maybe take you for a burger.”

Mulder paused, tempted. “Gee, Lieutenant, I’d

love to, but my director’s suggested I stick

around the office for the next few weeks. There

was a little incident involving silver bullets

and a lawsuit. You’ll crack it, Columbo. And

you need to bounce any ideas, just call. OK?”

“Well, OK,” Columbo sighed. “Thanks for taking

the time. Good talking to you again.”

“Same.”

Scully strolled briskly into the office,

inspecting her meditative partner. Mulder

looked up and hastily cradled the phone.

“Well, Buffy, you lucked out,” the petite

redhead breathed. “Skinner talked to the brass,

and they agreed to let your little misadventure

in lycanthropy slide if you get some

counseling.”

“Aw, jeez, Scully, I gotta see a shrink?”

Mulder whined.

Scully smiled slightly, enjoying her control of

the moment. “Relax, Mulder. We negotiated, and

it just so happens there’s a major Bureau team-

building seminar coming up.”

Mulder came out of his chair. “I’d rather have

the inkblots and the electrodes.”

Scully blinked innocence. “I assumed that given

the choice of sharing your affinity for bizarre

role-playing games with some Washington PhD or

playing Truth or Dare in the California sun–”

Mulder’s tantrum halted in mid-tant.

“California?”

“Yup,” she nodded gleefully. “La-La Land.”

Mulder pumped his fist in the air, causing

Scully’s jaw to drop. “YES!”

LAX International Airport

21 hours later

Fox Mulder took in a deep breath of Southern

California air as he stepped out of the LAX

terminal, sneezing as the brown L.A. haze

seeped into his nasal passages. He flipped his

Raybans back onto his recovering nose, sighing

as the L.A. sun caressed his face. Mulder leapt

back as a wheeled brushed steel makeup case

bumped over his Italian loafers. The Nordic

blonde toting the arsenal glared back at the

agent.

“Hey, Agent Mulder!”

Lt. Columbo flapped his rain-coated arms beside

a small foreign compact that appeared to have

lost a minor skirmish with a monster truck.

Mulder had planned a few Scullyless hours by

the hotel pool. “Columbo,” he called, limping

toward the disheveled detective. “I thought we

were supposed to meet down at Parker Center at

2.”

“We got another sighting!” Columbo shouted as a

pair of airport security guards approached.

“Sighting?”

“Another Simon Khan sighting,” the lieutenant

explained nervously.

“This is a shuttle zone, sir,” the larger of

the pair rumbled. “You gotta move on.”

“That’s what we’re gonna do, fellas,” Columbo

grinned, finally locating his badge case.

“Today, officer,” the guard ordered, enjoying

his moment of control and turning on his heel.

“Bye, fellas!” Columbo yelled. “Gee, they

seemed nice. Climb on in, Agent Mulder.”

“You know, it looks kinda tight in there,”

Mulder murmured. “Why don’t I take a

cab and meet you there.”

“Oh, geez, no. Those cabbies drive like

maniacs.”

Ten minutes later, as Mulder’s shins slammed

for the fifth time into the dashboard, he

gripped the windowframe for stability. “I, ah,

researched a few possible explanations for

Khan’s bilocation.”

“Bi-what?” Columbo asked.

“The road, please? Bilocation – the ability of

an individual to be in two locations

simultaneously. There’s actually extensive

documentation of such cases. The most common

phenomenon reported is the doppelganger, or

‘double walker,’ a so-called shadow self.

Supposedly, only the owner of the doppelganger

can see it, and it can be a harbinger of death.

Guy de Maupassant, the French novelist, claimed

to have been haunted by his doppelganger near

the end of his life.”

“Demap a…?”

“A variation is the wraith, a double an

individual can project to a remote location.

The double can interact with other people just

like the real person. It’s kind of like astral

projection, except…”

Columbo scratched his forehead. “You know, I’m

not sure the Captain would really go for that

wraith thing…”

“OK, how about good old solid quantum physics?

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of

Technology recently proves that an object at

least as large as a molecule can be made to act

like a light wave. It can be forcibly split

into two component waves and separately

manipulated, altered, recombined and analyzed.”

“That’s real interesting…”

“In other words, the same molecule conceivably

could exist in each of the two waves – in two

places at once. Then, if you want to get really

cosmic, there’s mirror matter. Every particle,

every atom may have an identical ‘partner’

particle or atom. The asteroid Eros shows signs

of being bombarded by invisible mirror matter.

If mirror matter exists, it opens the

possibility of parallel universes. Or people.”

Columbo stuck the cold cigar in his mouth. “Oh,

yeah, the captain’s not gonna like this at

all.”

**

“Where’s Extreme Makeover when you need it?”

Mulder muttered as he studied the sunburst

mural that adorned the lavish lobby of the

Vista del Sol. A huge pewter sun anchored the

lobby.

Columbo whistled. “Yeah, I’d love to do

something like this with my living room, but

Mrs. Columbo’s got real simple tastes.”

“Hey,” a plump young woman called as she

approached the pair. The housekeeper was draped

in a sunny canary yellow – the Vista del Sol’s

official staff color. “You the cops? I’m

Consuela. What’s up?”

Columbo ducked his head. “Hello, ma’am. I’m Lt.

Columbo. You told Sgt. Kramer you saw something

the night of the murder here?”

“When I heard you guys thought that writer guy,

Khan, might’ve killed that other guy, I thought

I ought to let you know,” Vargas said,

nervously playing with the hem of her uniform.

Columbo nodded appreciatively. “That was very

public-spirited of you, ma’am. So when did you

see Mr. Khan?”

She pointed vaguely toward the hotel

restaurant, La Fête du Soleil (the feast of the

sun,” Mulder translated). “See, I was on my

break, oh, maybe about a half-hour before that

man went into the pool, and I…”

“Yes, ma’am?” Columbo invited.

Vargas’ eyes flitted to the front desk. “Well,

see, I been dating Karl, the sous-chef, and I

was hoping maybe he was around. So I look in

the kitchen, but he ain’t there. So I kinda

roam around the service corridor – you know,

the back way to the ballrooms? — and I

see him.”

“Karl?” Mulder prompted.

“No, man,” Vargas sighed. “That writer guy. He

ain’t supposed to be there, so I thought about

telling him he needed to get out of there. But

he’s like, famous, or used to be, so I don’t

want to sound mean or anything. Anyway, I

figured this big writer guy wouldn’t be

stealing napkins or forks or nothing, so I just

got outta there before he saw me.”

“How was he dressed?” Mulder asked.

“Well, he was kinda in the dark, you know, the

shadows. But it looked like he was all in

black, like a burglar or Johnny Cash or

something. Makes sense, I guess, him being a

horror guy and all.”

“Anything else, ma’am?” Columbo spurred.

“Nah, that was about it. That help you? ‘Cause

it is about my break time…”

“You were very helpful, ma’am — very helpful.

You go enjoy your break, and give Karl my

regards.”

The plump housekeeper blushed and smiled coyly

before fleeing. Columbo leaned against a lobby

table and sighed heavily. “Well, that sure

doesn’t make anything any easier. Now we got

about an hour window when Mr. Khan had to be

away from his party. You wanna tell me about

that mirror matter again?”

**

“Lieutenant!” Simon Khan beamed as Columbo and

Mulder approached his table. Several heads

turned to glare at the mismatched duo

interrupting Khan’s signing session. The

autograph seekers clutched an assortment of

mostly paperbacks, with a few more elegantly

attired fans sporting mint hardcovers bearing

Khan’s amiably macabre countenance.

The author himself was wearing his talk-

show/public appearance uniform — a loose-

fitting Hawaiian shirt festooned with red

hibiscuses, and stonewashed jeans. He waved the

new arrivals into the Barnes and Noble.

“I was hoping you’d be back,” Khan said as he

accepted a plump matron’s copy of The Autumn

People. “Your initial visitation inspired me to

explore my first detective novel. Well, a

supernatural detective novel. Perhaps Mr.

Mulder might be able to counsel me.”

Columbo blinked, nearly backing into a life-

sized cardboard Tom Clancy stoically guarding

his latest opus. “You know Agent Mulder, sir?”

“Tiny community, Hollywood,” Khan grinned. “The

studio almost hired me to consult on The

Lazarus Bowl a few years ago. How’d you like

Shandling’s Agent Mulder, Agent Mulder?”

“Lot better than Rob Lowe in Lazarus Bowl II:

The Pontiff’s Revenge,” Mulder murmured.

“What’s your idea, Mr. Khan?”

“Kind of a twist on the old astral projection

theme,” Khan answered nonchalantly, jotting a

greeting into a Goth girl’s battered copy of

Glow. “What they call the ‘Janus resolution’ in

the mystery world. Was a supernatural agent

responsible for the crime in question, or has

the murderer committed the perfect murder?

“There’s no such thing as a perfect crime,

sir,” Columbo countered.

“Well, perhaps not outside of fiction,” Khan

conceded, his grin widening. “What do you

think, Agent? Was my good friend Daniel

dispatched by a dastardly doppelganger?”

Mulder smiled. “Was your good friend into

alliterative graveyard humor, Mr. Khan?”

The writer shrugged. “Touche, Agent Mulder. But

you have to understand the world of horror

writers. Most of us were geeks and freaks in

high school, even college, and sometimes,

sarcasm and eccentricity were our best

weapons against a cold world.”

“Where’d Dan Prinze fit into that scheme?”

Mulder posed. “He wasn’t actually a geek in the

traditional sense. An assistant professor of

the classics, a Mensa member, one of the

country’s top Greek scholars. Even published a

mainstream novel.”

“Icarus Ascending,” Khan supplied. “Wasn’t a

bad read — Dan probably should’ve stuck to

literature. Problem was, he wasn’t content to

toil in academic obscurity. When Icarus tanked,

he cranked out a quickie paperback under a

pseudonym and was astonished — and probably

pretty damned disgusted — to discover the

public ate it up. Then the cable people made

that cheesy TV-movie out of it. Dan quit his

university gig and became a writing machine,

each fast-food book more popular than the rest.

“The problem is, Dan didn’t have the outcast

mentality necessary to fully imagine the basest

human fears. But the more popular he became,

the more he wanted to hang out with the geeks.

I found him sort of amusing. Hell, I even

invited him to my party the other night. But

Dan was too busy crowing about his movie deal.”

The Maestro of the Macabre glanced at his

watch, a Mickey Mouse model. “Hey, gotta run,

fellas — drinks with some audio book folks.

Sorry, Lieutenant, but I can’t be two places at

once. Right?”

Five minutes later, the cop and the agent

gnawed pensively on mall pretzels, Columbo

noisily sucking on a Coke. Suddenly, he stopped

in mid-suck.

“Mr. Khan knows some folks in the movie

business, right?” Columbo inquired.

“Yeah, I guess he would.”

“Think he might know any doubles — you know,

stunt doub–”

“No,” Mulder responded simply, ripping into a

salty rope of dough.

“Just a thought,” Lt. Columbo sighed. The

detective stared back into the bookstore, where

a clerk was removing all evidence of Simon

Khan’s visit. Within minutes, an unsmiling Tom

Clancy was replaced by a cardboard tombstone

loaded with Daniel Prinze’s latest novel. As

the cop watched the clerk and Clancy disappear

into a stockroom, he slapped his forehead.

“You want to drink that slower,” Mulder

suggested.

“I got it,” Columbo announced. “I got the how.”

He sobered, respectfully. “You might not like

it though, Agent Mulder. I’m afraid there

wasn’t any doppler-gangers or nothing.”

“Tell me.”

Columbo’s brow furrowed. “First, you got one of

those cell phones on you? Thanks.” Mulder

walked him through the intricacies of dialing

in the new millennium, then listened as he was

bounced between several parties. “Yeah,

Consuela? This is Lt. Columbo — yeah, the

murder guy. Sorry to take you away from your

work. Huh? Yeah, that’s how I feel, too.

Anyway, I just got two questions to ask you.

You got any big horror fans work with you?

Somebody likes scary books, Simon

Khan?…Really, yessss. Well, thanks, Consuela.

You mighta just busted the case wide open.”

**

“Hey,” Vincent Carmody mumbled, stretching and

blinking at the cop and the agent in his

apartment doorway. His carrot-hued hair was in

disarray. “You’re the dude that came out to the

hotel after that writer guy got offed.”

“Yes, sir, that’s right,” Columbo nodded. “And

this is Special Agent Mulder with the FBI. I

hope we didn’t wake you up, Mr. Carmody.”

“Naw, man,” the bellboy yawned. “I was watching

Chainsaw again. Hooper’s no Carpenter, you

know?”

“Mind if we come in, swap notes on Freddy vs.

Jason?” Mulder asked.

Vincent glanced anxiously back into his

darkened apartment. Mulder caught a glimpse of

Leatherface pursuing a distraught adolescent.

“Aw, you know, it’s kinda messed up. I ain’t

much of a housekeeper. That’s why I’m a

bellboy.” He snorted at his wit.

“Oh, come on, Vince,” Mulder urged. “We just

want to come in and see your collection. Or at

least one item. OK?”

“Hey,” Vince protested, blocking the doorway.

“I watch The Practice. You guys can’t just come

in here without a, you know, one of those

search things…”

Columbo smiled. “That’s true, sir. I’ll go

to go downtown and talk to a judge I know, then

come back here with a search warrant.

Meanwhile, Officer Schmidt will keep you

company.”

“Officer Schmidt?” Vince looked past Columbo

and Mulder, to the patrol unit at the curb. A

crewcut halfback leaned against the passenger

door.

“Yeah,” Mulder said. “We wouldn’t want anything

to get ‘lost’ while we’re getting that search

warrant.”

Vince slumped against the doorjamb. “Shit,

man.”

“Yup,” Mulder grinned.

**

Simon Khan stepped off the elevator with a

sense of trepidation. Columbo had been

particularly solicitous when he’d called out to

the house. Did he suspect the truth?

And why was he supposed to meet the cop and his

fed friend in Dan’s room? Simon fingered the

plastic keycard Columbo had left at the desk

for him.

The corridor was empty, and as the author

approached Room 1413, he listened for voices

within. Silence. He slipped the card into the

lock, waited for the green light, and pushed

in.

For a second, Simon’s breath was taken away.

His feet froze to the carpet, and his eyes

locked onto the figure across the room.

Simon Khan stared at Simon Khan for a moment

before his eyes acclimated to the darkness. The

Simon Khan by the balcony curtains was clad in

black and grinning mischievously, as if he were

savoring the horror in his doppelganger’s eyes.

Then Simon’s heart slowed as he understood, and

he laughed, briefly. Then the curtains flew

open, and he blinked.

“And that, Mr. Khan, is how a man can be in two

places at one time,” he heard Columbo announce.

The compact cop came into focus, followed by a

taller silhouette. Mulder.

The good lieutenant walked over, reached behind

the second Simon Kahn, and effortlessly picked

him up. He carried the two-dimensional author

over and placed him before the three-

dimensional one. “You’ve seen one of these

before, haven’t you, sir?”

Simon was silent.

“It’s one of those cardboard standup displays

like they put in the bookstores. I almost

knocked one over yesterday, remember? Tom

Clancy, I think.

Columbo examined the standup. “I think Agent

Mulder here’s actually a little disappointed.

He was hoping there was some kinda supernatural

reason for Mrs. Flossburton and Ms. Vargas

seein’ you here at the hotel when you were

sposed to be at your party. That’s what you

wanted us to think. But it was just a mistake –

a mistake you decided to take advantage of.

“See, Mrs. Flossburton saw you from, geez,

musta been at least two football fields away.

And Ms. Vargas, the maid, she saw this thing in

the dark. Turns out the bellboy – big fan of

yours – had this standup in his van. He bought

it at a comic book store a few days ago.

“But the night Mr. Prinze died, Vincent, the

bellboy, he snuck it in the employee entrance

when he thought nobody would notice. That’s

when Ms. Vargas saw it – while Vince was

checkin’ to see if the coast was clear. Then it

wound up in this room – that’s where Mrs.

Flossburton saw it, thinking it was you.

“You heard on the news what’d happened to your

friend, Mr. Prinze, and when I came to visit

you with that story about Mrs. Flossburton

seeing you up here, you decided to let me

believe you really were here. What harm could

it do? You had a perfect alibi, and since you

didn’t kill Mr. Prinze, you knew I’d never

crack it.”

The detective turned to the author – the real

one. “One thing bothered me. Why would you

try to take the blame for a murder you didn’t

commit? I get murderers, they like to play

games. Sometimes, somebody’ll try to protect

the real killer – a friend, a family member.”

“But I don’t think it was a friend or relative

or lover you were trying to protect,” Mulder

picked up. “When Prinze called you that night,

he was depressed, wasn’t he?”

Khan smiled inscrutably. “You gotta be kidding.

He was riding high.”

“I don’t think so,” Mulder said, calmly. He

pulled a small brown, safety-capped bottle from

his slacks. “I think the true impact of his

newfound fame came home to him. Prinze was a

associate professor, familiar with classic

literature, unsuccessful at his own try at the

Great American Novel. He was good at

literature, but he knew down deep he was a

failure at horror fiction. A popular failure,

but a failure. He called his mentor, you, and I

think you talked him through it.

Then you invited him to your party.”

Khan laughed. “You must have a touch of psychic

ability yourself, Agent.”

“Not really. See, that’s why this standup was

in the room. After talking to you, Prinze came

out of his funk. He ordered a bottle of

champagne, and bragged to the bellboy – Vince –

that he was going to a party thrown by the

great Simon Khan.”

“Great, yeah. I haven’t published in three

years, and I can’t get even any hack producers

interested in doing one of my stories. I’m on

the downhill side in an age when people are

more interested in a good beach read than

serious gothic scares.”

“To Daniel Prinze, you were a master in a genre

where he felt like an imposter. Then the

bellboy comes back, armed with his little

collector’s item here.” Mulder studied the

cardboard figure. “Prinze is already in a

vulnerable state, and Vincent the Sensitive

asks Prinze if he could get the Great Simon

Khan to sign it for him. Prinze says OK.”

“Then why didn’t he show up at the party?” Khan

challenged.

“I think Prinze sat here for a while, staring

at ‘you’ and realizing he’d never be you, no

matter how much fame or money he got,” Columbo

suggested. “Then I think he went out onto the

balcony for some fresh air. And that, Mr. Khan,

is when he jumped.”

Mulder glanced out toward the balcony. “Kurt

Cobain.”

Khan looked up. “What?”

“You weren’t protecting a killer. You were

protecting what you and Prinze had tried so

hard to do with Face Your Fear. What would

happen to your teen anti-suicide campaign if

one of the founders, a celebrity, the height of

his career, was found to have killed himself?

Guys like Kurt Cobain have already glamorized

the idea of suicide. You’d rather have had

people wonder if you were a killer rather than

let Daniel Prinze become some kind of romantic

hero to disaffected kids.”

Khan stared silently at Mulder, then at

Columbo. “You think you can prove this?”

“Vince was at poolside when Prinze jumped,”

Mulder said. “He didn’t want be implicated –

or, I suspect, to have his collector’s item

confiscated as evidence – so he rushed up

before anybody could identify Prinze and

removed the standup of you. He’s confessed to

doing that.”

“But he didn’t see Prinze go off the balcony,”

Khan said evenly. “This still doesn’t prove

Prinze wasn’t murdered.”

“You’re absolutely right, sir,” Columbo agreed,

thoughtfully. “We’re pretty sure Mr. Prinze

jumped off that balcony out there, but the only

solid evidence we have, well, I’m not so sure a

jury would buy it. See, I figured out the how,

but Agent Mulder worked out the why. He’s what

you call a profiler – he gets into a killer’s

head and figures out how he’d think, what he’d

do. But in this case, he got into the victim’s

head. Mr. Prinze’s head.”

“You know what Vista del Sol means, don’t you,

Mr. Khan?” Mulder posed.

“I live in California, Agent,” Khan smiled

sardonically. “View of the Sun, or something

like that, right?”

“Close enough. The hotel’s decorators and

owners have taken the name literally. You’ve

seen the sunburst in the lobby, the staff’s

uniforms, the name of the restaurant – French

for ‘Feast of the Sun.’

“Prinze’s first novel, the one that flopped so

badly. Icarus Ascending. You know who Icarus

was, I assume. The tragic Greek hero who made

wings of feathers and wax and tried to fly to

the sun. Only the sun’s heat melted the wings,

and he fell to his death. Prinze drew on his

knowledge of Greek mythology for his story of a

young man whose dreams exceeded his talents.

“Mr. Khan, Lieutenant, would you two come out

onto the balcony?”

Columbo pushed past the heavy drapes and, after

a moment, Khan moved out into the warm

California night. The sounds of music and

partying wafted up from the hotel pool.

Mulder grasped the railing. “Prinze already had

been fighting feelings of insecurity and

depression. Then Vince showed up and reminded

Prinze that he’d always be a pale reflection of

the Master of Horror, Simon Khan. I think

Prinze came out here to reflect, to be alone

with his dark thoughts, whatever. He comes over

here, looks down and… Well, Mr. Khan, would

you look down at the pool, please?”

Khan moved to the rail and willed himself to

glance down. “What am I suppose to be see-?”

The writer gasped sharply and stepped back.

Columbo placed a hand on his shoulder, and Khan

looked back into the shimmering blue water.

Beneath the surface, vivid tiles of orange and

yellow and red and white were arranged into a

large, seemingly incandescent circle. Tiled

rays emanated from the circle.

“You see, sir,” Columbo said quietly, “When Mr.

Prinze looked down there into that pool, he

musta thought about that character in his first

book, about how his talent would probably never

live up to his dreams…”

Washington, D.C.

15 hours later

“It must have seemed like an omen,” Mulder

suggested, rolling onto his side to face

Scully. He’d seemed subdued when she’d picked

him up at Reagan Airport, so Scully didn’t razz

him about his no-show at the Bureau seminar.

She placed a palm on her partner’s chest, and

pushed her pillow closer to his’. “But what a

horrible, hopeless decision.”

“We all want to imagine ourselves the hero of

our own drama – or, in Prinze’s case, his own

Greek tragedy. When he looked over that balcony

rail and saw what was at the bottom of that

pool, it must have seemed, oh, just right, I

guess. He climbed onto the railing and, just

like Icarus…”

“He flew into the sun.”

end

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