by James Dona
Ivan Trumbull savored his meal of grilled salmon at the Old West Bar and Grill. His wife Babe was seated across from him, eating her salad. Their meal was interrupted by the shriek of the fire alarm. Ivan covered his ears and jumped up with a look of exasperation. "They don't need to make those things so loud."
Babe rose with a look of concern. "Shouldn't we go outside?
"No. I see no signs of fire. Probably tripped by accident. Might be a grease fire in the kitchen, though."
He looked around the room, where some people were heading for the exit. Most people were out of their seats. He said, "Let's go outside. I can't stand that piercing shriek."
They joined a stream of people heading for the sidewalk, but a few people stayed behind, not seeming to mind the screaming alarm. They waited on the sidewalk for the noise to stop. It was nearing dusk, in a warm evening. A distant siren signaled that the fire department was on its way. Babe said, "Maybe there is a fire."
"No, the fire alarm system probably sends a signal to the nearest firehouse. That way they get quick response in case there really is a fire."
The first fire truck rolled into the parking lot just as the sound of the alarm stopped. Ivan said, "We can go back in now. I want to finish my salmon before it gets any colder."
Babe laughed. "I knew nothing would keep you from your salmon for long." They smiled at each other. These two chubby middle-aged people showed their affection for each other in their loving gazes.
As they were returning to their booth, Ivan gave a perfunctory wave of his hand to private detective Joe Scallia, who gave the slightest of nods. That one will get caught with his hand in the cookies one of these days. Some people skirt the very edge of what's legal in his trade. Hope I don't have to go into that business when I retire.
A flashing red light from the rotating beacon on the fire truck shone through the windows, making the western motif memorabilia on the walls and ceiling even more surreal. The manager came over and offered to warm up their food. Ivan said, "The food is OK, but did you have to hold a fire drill while we were here?" He laughed to show he was kidding.
"Somebody tripped an alarm back in the restroom area. Stuck a lighted cigarette under a sensor. Some practical joker. I could kill that guy." He went on to the next table to apologize for the incident.
Four men came in, and sat at a table next to the bar. Ivan recognized one of them, the boss of the local gambling and loan sharking operations. Someday we may get lucky and tag that guy. I'd like to get him off the street. George Kroner seemed to have a good-luck charm. He was never there when his places were raided. The men with him were probably bodyguards or cronies. Ivan studied their faces, for future reference. Someday we may get them all in the net.
Ivan turned back to his meal, which had gotten cold by now. He was looking for the waiter so he could pay the check, when a shot rang out. The alarm sounded from the back door exit. A woman's scream came from near the restrooms to break a momentary silence, except for the beeping of the door alarm. Now a great hubbub arose in the crowded room.
Ivan jumped to his feet. His quick eye surveyed the room. He patted the .38 police special in his shoulder holster, and made his way toward the sound of screaming. His eyes scanned the room in that direction, alert for any threat.
He elbowed his way through the gathering crowd. A body lay on the floor near the restrooms. George Kroner! His lucky charm failed him tonight. A man bent over the body and expertly checked for a pulse. His quick examination of the wound demonstrated the kind of expertise that only a doctor would have. The man rose to his feet and looked around.
Ivan said, "Is he dead, doctor?"
The man looked at Ivan. "You are a policeman?"
"Off duty. Lieutenant Ivan Trumbull. City homicide detective. This will probably be my case. Your name?"
"Dr. Tom Hardy. Resident at City General. I'm off duty too. This certainly won't be my case. He's dead. A bullet to the back of the skull. Killed instantly. The man who ran out the back door was a good shot."
The haggard manager came up. "I called 911. The police should be here in a minute."
Ivan walked to the back door and looked out. A police cruiser already sat outside in the parking lot. Two uniformed patrolmen jumped out of the car and started toward the front door. Why aren't they coming this way? He opened the door and called to them. They turned and ran up to the door with guns drawn.
"Lieutenant Trumbull! You're here already? We just got the call on the radio." It was patrolman Lundy and a partner Ivan didn't know.
Ivan said, "You were in the parking lot already. You were here on the fire alarm call, right? Did you see the person who ran out this door?"
Lundy's face was a study in confusion. "But...But.... We didn't see anybody come out that door. We were sitting here for a couple minutes. We were just about to go in for our break. Nobody came out of here."
"Well then! Secure the other doors. Don't let anyone leave until we get some backup to check out everybody inside. The shooter must have opened the door, then ducked into the restroom. Now we have a whole restaurant full of suspects!"
The two men fanned out to cover the other doors. Approaching sirens sounded from several directions. The department is on the ball tonight. So much for my night off!
Joe Scallia was carrying a long-barreled 38 in his pants pocket. He offered the gun for Ivan's inspection. The barrel was cold, it was fully loaded, no odor of recent firing. Joe handed Ivan his gun permit.
Ivan said, "If you don't mind, I'd like to get a residue swab of your hands. Just routine. This gun hasn't been fired tonight." Ivan called over a technician.
Joe said, "Guess you have to follow procedures, but I just came from the firing range. I tried out a new gun I just bought. It's out in the car. I haven't washed my hands--I'm just a slob I guess. Of course you'll find residue on my right hand. That big forty-five kicks out a lot of it. But go ahead. Take your test for the record."
After the technician took a swab of both his hands, Joe led Ivan out to his car. He pulled the forty-five out of the trunk. It was unloaded, and of course it had cooled off from it's afternoon firing. Ivan looked at the gun with disgust. It was a model that any police officer would call &qupt;a piece of pipe," a cheap gun not built for accuracy. Why would any professional buy a gun like that?
Ivan said, "I'll have to take both guns in to get a ballistic on them. Do you have any other guns with you?"
"Sorry Lieutenant. That's my entire arsenal. Can't afford any more on the money I make."
Patrolman Lundy came up as Ivan re-entered the restaurant. "We found three guns in the trash can behind the bar. Those three 'associates' of the dead man were unarmed of course. They must have a friend on staff here. We took swabs of their hands to see if one of them fired the murder weapon. The victim was also unarmed."
"Good work, Lundy. You'll make a good detective someday. We'll need to talk to the staff. Especially anyone who was behind the bar after the shooting." Ivan turned to the two men from homicide, who had just arrived. He gave them all the information he knew.
"Jenny, I want you to track down the story I got from Joe Scallia. We need to verify that he was shooting at that target range yesterday afternoon. Mike, you and your partner can check out the men who came into the restaurant with the deceased. Saunders, you and your partner can check out all the restaurant employees, even if they weren't working last night. I'll go see the folks at the crime lab to see what they have."
Ivan walked through the restaurant and tried to look at everything with new eyes. He had eaten here several times, but this time he pretended he was seeing it for the first time. He went to the booth where he sat the night before and studied the room from there, remembering the chain of events. The decor was a bit overdone, with all that western gear on the walls and hanging from the ceiling.
Next he went to the booth where he remembered seeing Joe Scallia. He sat down and surveyed the scene as Joe would have seen it. He then stood up and looked carefully at the room from that vantage point. Nothing jumped out at him, so he walked over to the place where chalk lines on the floor outlined the body as the examiner found it. How much was it moved by the doctor who first examined it? Jenny can investigate the doctor.
As though she had heard his thought, Jenny came in the front door. She walked over to him with a grin that said she had news to tell. "Joe was on the firing range yesterday afternoon. He bought a box of ammo for a forty-five revolver. He was only on the line for seven minutes, shooting up the full box, then left. He was in a hurry. Didn't score as well as he usually does."
"And? What else did you find?"
"Joe always shoots there on Tuesday mornings. Yesterday was Thursday. And he came in the afternoon."
"Might mean something. Might not. He said he just bought the gun. What do you usually do with a new toy?"
"But that's just it. I checked the gun shops. He bought the gun two weeks ago. Why didn't he shoot it on Tuesday? He was there Tuesday, but only used his old thirty-eight."
Ivan smiled. "Good work. Some of the guys would have verified he was there when he said he was, and let it go at that. I think the shooter stood behind that partition, shot old George, opened the door just enough to set off the alarm and make it appear he went out, then ducked into the men's room to wash his hands. He couldn't wash off all the residue because it was imbedded in his skin, but it would reduce the level to be consistent with his story. When the screams attracted everyone's attention to the body, he strolled out of the restroom and went back to his booth."
Jenny listened in awe, but when he finished, her pretty face clouded. "But what happened to the gun. We were supposed to think the shooter took it with him when he went out the door. Was it one of the guns found behind the bar?"
"No, the bullet was a forty-five, and none of the guns in the restaurant was a forty-five. Joe had his thirty-eight revolver. The three henchmen's guns, stashed in the trash can behind the bar were; a thirty-eight magnum, a 25 caliber revolver, and a really cute little 22 automatic."
"So what happened to the shooter's gun. If the shooter was still in the room, how did he get rid of it?"
"Well, let's assume the shooter was Joe Scallia. Let's walk over to where he was eating when the shooting occurred."
As soon as they stood looking at the booth she said, "oh," in a tiny voice like an exhaled breath. She walked over to the holstered six-gun on the wall and used her plastic evidence bag to remove it from the holster, careful not to smudge any fingerprints on it.
Now Ivan was grinning at her like a prankster whose joke worked. He said, "That's 'the smoking gun' I'll bet. We'll take it to the crime lab, and if it is the murder weapon, that will put the Scallia Detective Agency out of business permanently."
"But we still have to show a motive."
"My friendly neighborhood FBI man, who shall remain nameless, gave me the motive this morning. Joe was gambling, and losing big at one of the syndicate places. George Kroner was after him to pay up. Joe seems to have had a different method of payment in mind."
Jenny joined Ivan and Babe for dinner. Babe was fond of Jenny, who was like the daughter they never had. Babe said, "Have some more chicken, Jenny. Now you two promised to fill me in on the case. Were there fingerprints on the gun Jenny found?"
Ivan chuckled. "Joe Scallia was crooked, not stupid. He wiped the gun clean, but ballistics proved that gun fired the fatal bullet."
Babe said, "Why was there a decorative gun hanging on the wall that could be used to kill somebody?"
Jenny said, "The gun used in the murder was one he must have bought on the street. He replaced the harmless display gun with that fully loaded 45 when he ate at the restaurant a few days earlier. Then he set off the fire alarm, and in the confusion he switched his 38 for the 45. Most of the customers were out on the sidewalk at that time."
Ivan said, "He did leave his prints on the holster. That was a surprise, but he was in a hurry when he switched the guns after the shooting. It was only an almost perfect crime."