Discharge by Death
A Columbo/M*A*S*H* story
By Martin Ross

   1952. Still recovering from the war to end all wars, the U.S. finds itself deeply embroiled in yet one more war, this time against a new menace: Communism. The Korean War, or Conflict, or Police Action, or whatever today's historians choose to call it, is known to many older veterans as "The Forgotten War."

But the Korean War has a unique place in the annals of mystery fiction and television entertainment. Two of the '70s top sleuths, Lt. Columbo and private eye Jim Rockford, served their country at the 38th Parallel, and the wry and sensitive literary P.I. Spenser (the hulking fella in the books, not the relatively boyish Robert Urich or Joe Mantegna) is a veteran of the conflict, as well. And while Combat may have tipped a dented helmet to the soldiers of The Big One, and China Beach may have brought Vietnam home to a new generation, M*A*S*H* remains the popular culture's most enduring paeon to the folly and futility of war.

Columbo's stint in the military is only sketchily described in his televised adventures (see "Swan Song"), and is characterized as somewhat less than draped in glory. But is it so hard to imagine that the humble but inquisitive little man might first have been drawn to policework by way of military law enforcement? And who better to have provided a catalyst and a foil for our young M.P. than Dr. Hawkeye Pierce, named for a character found in the works of James Fenimore Cooper, an early American author who set down some of the primitive principles of the mystery/adventure story?

G.K. Chesterton's famous clergyman/detective Father Brown once postulated that the ideal place in which to hide a leaf is the forest, and that a battleground might provide the perfect cover for premeditated murder. If you doubt that premise, rent A Soldier's Story, Off Limits (Willem Dafoe and Gregory Hines as Vietnam-era MPs), or A Few Good Men.

Now let us parachute into hostile but familiar territory, as Private Columbo and his Watson, Captain Pierce, probe the case of the sergeant who made one enemy too many.

Martin Ross is agricultural affairs editor with Illinois FarmWeek newspaper and a reporter for the past 20 years. He has published ten X-Files fanfics on various sites.

At the sound of the voice in the hall, Thomas Jefferson Pierce returned John Doe No. 6 to his morgue drawer – the unfortunate gentleman’s temporary accommodation on the way to the Great Hereafter or whatever fate his personal belief system prescribed.
The assistant M.E. stripped his non-latex gloves, made a three-pointer into the bio-waste receptacle, and shoved through the insulated doors into the relatively warm hallway. Clear except for M.E. Quincy, embroiled in one of his frequent tirades with the boss, Dr. Astin. 
Pierce ventured a hypothesis and, averting the vociferous medical examiner, peeked into the breakroom. The cop was there, crouched before a snack vending machine as if either hoping to deliver an infant snack dispenser or praying to the entity that provides sour cream chips and Kit Kats. 
“Columbo, you see the head yet?” Pierce inquired with a broad smile. He enjoyed the homicide cop’s eccentricities, respected his professional doggedness, and warmed to his fundamental humanity. 
Columbo looked up, startled. A sheepish grin spread across his five o’clock shadow. “Hey, Tom, how’s it going?” He turned back to the machine, peering up the snack delivery trough into its work. “I just put 60 cents in this gadget, and the doggoned thing won’t give me my M&Ms. I punched the buttons – E-1, like it said.” 

Pierce stepped forward. “Let’s employ the diagnostic method, OK?” He examined the gaping window of sweet and salty comestibles positioned on large rotating coils. “Plain, peanut, or crispy rice, Columbo?” 

“Oh, plain,” the policeman responded. “The wife was reading about diverticulitis the other night, and I’m trying to reduce my nut intake.” 

“Probably not necessary, though I guess you could probably do without the cholesterol and fat. Plain M&Ms still in their upright position, no candy lodged in the lower intestine of the mechanism. Did the coil start turning after you punched the proper number? Maybe a mechanical glitch.” 

Columbo shook his head. “Didn’t do a thing, Tom. Just sat there.” 

“And you’re positive you pressed the right numbers? No history of dyslexia – you don’t wonder where James Bond is when you’re watching the 700 Club?” 

The cop looked baffled. “I think I did it right. It wouldn’t give me my M&Ms.” 

“Then my guess is this is a digestive problem,” the tall A.M.E. concluded, reaching into the machine’s coin return slot. “Ah, the eternal story – beaten by a woman again. Sacajawea, to be precise.” He handed Columbo the roughly quarter-sized Sacajawea dollar. “Why is it whenever the Treasury tries to pay tribute to the sisters, it winds up screwing us out of 75 cents? Not that Susan B. Anthony was my idea of a hot babe. Here’s a quarter, Columbo; my treat. And bring your plain M&Ms into the lab – I’ve got something for you.” 

The lieutenant paled. “Ah, Tom, I dunno…” 

“Nothing bloated, blue, or dismembered, I promise,” Dr. Pierce called, already out the door. 

Columbo, keeping his eyes rigidly averted from the steel exam tables and the wall drawers, found Pierce fishing in his coat jacket. “Yeah, here it is,” the young man announced, pulling out a slightly age-browned envelope. “I told you Grandad Hawkeye thought your name rang a bell when I told him about the Prince case. You told me you’d been in Korea, so I had him root through the letters he sent Great-Granddad during the war.” 

“He’s a doctor, too, right?” Columbo asked. 

Pierce beamed proudly. “Oldest working G.P. in Maine – still works a 12-hour day. You remember visiting a MASH unit – a mobile army hospital – back in ’53?” 

Columbo frowned, then recognition hit. “Hawkeye, of course,” the cop nodded, smacking his forehead. “Yeah, yeah, the murder in the hospital. Your grandpa was a big help in that case – I was just a kid, then, and I kinda got thrown into the case…” 

** 

Dear Dad;

Just dropping a line to let you know your prodigal son remains prodigalized, courtesy Gen. Mark Clark, but is otherwise safe and sane. Mark Clark, Mark Clark – ever since MacArthur took a tramp steamer out of town, I’ve been hoping a man of such whimsically sensible nominal alliteration might see the folly of war – pardon me, the folly of police actions – and drop me back (literally) in the bowels of New England.

All goes swell at the 4077th – well, as swell as Hell can go, that is. The North Koreans, selfish bounders that they are, launched a major offensive to the north, and as a result, we just came off a 36-hour stint in the OR. A real Man’s Inhumanity to Manfest. As I look down at the youthful faces on those tables, I begin to fear next week’s warriors will be signing their draft papers with Crayolas.

The gang sends their regards, especially Col. Potter, who sends “a king-size kudo” for that home-made salve you recommended. He’s back in the saddle again – at least for the first time in three weeks without screaming in pain.

Had us an old-fashioned bar-be-cue here last week. A company of Greeks – whose gratitude is as boundless seemingly as their supply of ouzo – showed their appreciation for patching up their commander by bartering some lambs from the locals and ka-bobbing them to death. Finest kind.

Speaking of death, a too-common topic in our corner of the Asian continent, we had an unexpected guest at the E.R. Corral. Sort of the Sherlock Holmes of Brooklyn, the Ellery Queen of Queens.

M.P. Columbo arrived at our little outpost amid a miasma of seared mutton and murder…

** 

The clerk was uglier even than Olive Rizzoletti, who’d launched a massive but unsuccessful assault on Columbo their junior year. Decked out in a very non-regulation chartreuse angora sweater, wool skirt, and beret, she at least dressed better than Olive, the young private thought. 

“What can I do for ya, Mac?” the clerk asked, pulling oversized hands from a drawerful of files. “Hurry it up, though – Nurse Dish promised me a pedicure, and if miss my appointment, I’ll have to wear open-toes for the next week.” 

Columbo looked closer at the lady, who indeed was no lady. “You’re the clerk here, mister?” 

The clerk stuck out a hairy paw. “Corporal O’Reilly’s taking a Nehi break. Corporal Maxwell Klinger at your disposal, substitute company clerk. What can we do you for, um…?” 

“Private Columbo, ma--, I mean sir. I’m with C.I.D. —” 

Klinger backed off a step. “Chickie, the cops.” Then his dark eyes brightened. “Unless you’re here to take me off to the laughing academy. I can have one of the docs certify I’m certifiable, if you’ll wait right here…” 

Columbo frowned in further bafflement. “Maybe I better talk to your commanding officer…” 

Klinger shrugged. “Like to help you, kid, but Col. Potter’s in Seoul learning how to get phosphorous burn victims back to the front quicker. And you don’t want to talk to Major Winchester – he’s a major horse’s patoot, and he’s in full patootitude. I think Captain Pierce’s who you need to confab with. Look, I’m working a big deal here – a case of hooch for some sulfa – and if I don’t stick by the blower, Supply Sgt. Rockford’ll find somebody with a little better booze to barter for. Think you can find your way to the O.R.?” 

“O what?” 

“O.R. – the operating room. The big building with the bloodstain décor. That’s where you’ll find Hawkeye – Captain Pierce. Can’t miss it. See ya, kid.” 

Columbo stumbled toward the door, then turned. “Hey, sir, sorry to bother you, but could I ask you just one more thing?” 

Klinger smiled. “Sure, kid. The sweater I got mail-order, and the—“ 

“Ah, no. I don’t ‘spose you caught Tuesday’s Yankees score on the Armed Services station?” 

“Sorry, kid. I can give you the Toledo Mudhens scores for last month, if you can wait for my Cousin Lenny’s letter to get here.” 

Columbo sighed. “Thanks, anyway, ma-, uh, sir.” 

** 

Private Columbo’s gut was rumbling like a distant shelling attack by the time he made it to the O.R. At the edge of the MASH compound, a group of foreign soldiers had dug a pit, and a collie-sized corpse was roasting on a spit over it the excavation. It smelled like a gamier version of the lamb Aunt Sophia used to bring out around Easter every year, and the young soldier hadn’t eaten anything but K-rations for the past four days. And judging from their color and taste, K-rations that had probably been canned back when Hitler was a pup. 

All thoughts of Sophia’s lamb fled as a peeked into the O.R. A lone soldier was swabbing the floor, and some of the wet, slippery things he was swabbing, well, Columbo didn’t want to know. 

He turned quickly away and pushed through a curtain into the pre-op, which is what he wanted, anyway. 

Nearly all the cots in the room were full of bandaged, splinted, and largely dazed or despondent men. A sturdily-built blonde was at a nearby desk, scanning paperwork with a pencil poised against her scarlet lips. 

“Um, ma’am?” Columbo asked, approaching her. 

The woman started. “That’s Major. Major Houlihan. What do you want?” 

The private was tongue-tied by the stern words that came out of the major’s Hollywood face. “Uh, well, I..” 

Houlihan sighed. “Well, spit it out, soldier.” 

“Yes, ma-, I mean Major,” Columbo whispered, so as not to wake the wounded men. “You got a Lieutenant Maubrey here? Peter Maubrey?” 

“You in his company?” 

“Uh, no, Major. But I do need to talk to him…” 

The nurse glanced over at a thirtyish man on one of the cots. Columbo had noticed he was sleeping when he’d come in, but now he was staring at them. 

“I don’t know…” Houlihan began suspiciously. 

“My foot!” a man’s voice suddenly screamed from the far wall. “Whattayou fucking bastards done with my goddamn foot? Gimme my fucking foot!!” 

“Oh, my god,” Houlihan exhaled, leaping from her chair. “Zale! Get in here, ASAP!” 

The soldier with the mop burst in from the operating room. “You OK, Major?” 

“Lankowitz’ come off his sedative,” the major yelled as she sprinted toward a large man attempting to rise from his cot. “I’m going to need you to hold him down. You, there, soldier, you see if you can get one of the doctors out there. Pierce, Hunnicutt, or Winchester, preferably.” 

Columbo was glued to his spot for a split-second, but the look the blonde nurse sent him jolted him toward the door. 

“Hey, is there a doctor here?” he shouted as fatigued men and women froze around him. “Doctor Hunnicutt? Doctor Pierce?” 

A tall, pleasant-looking man dressed oddly in a red Hawaiian shirt and straw cowboy hat jogged up and grabbed his arm. “What’s up? I’m Pierce.”

“There’s a guy in there wants his foot back,” Columbo puffed. “The major says she needs you—” 

“Foot,” Pierce murmured. “Damn it, I told Winchester the dosage wasn’t high enough…” The doctor shoved into the building, and Columbo followed a few seconds behind. 

The major, the mopper, and the doctor were simultaneously wrestling, injecting, and trying to calm the now-blubbering man in the corner. The private quietly moved to Lt. Maubrey’s cot. The soldier, his hand encased in gauze and plaster, his right leg stiff before him, looked at Columbo impassively. 

“Poor fella had his foot sheared off by a North Korean mine,” the lieutenant informed the M.P. in a soft Southern tone. “He’s been unconscious since they operated on him yesterday, so this is the first he’s known. Poor fella.” 

“Geez, that’s awful,” Columbo agreed. “Mine took my sergeant few days ago. Saw him just disappear like twenty feet away from me.” 

“You have my sympathy,” the officer offered, sincerely. “Suppose I should consider myself fortunate – the doctor there tells me I’ll have a limp, and I suppose my polo days are over, but at least I’m going home somewhat intact. I’m Lieutenant Maubrey, incidentally. Understand you wanted to speak to me?” 

“Yes, sir,” Private Columbo began, clearing his dry throat. Sgt. Rowlston in actuality had been what his commander had called a “blue ribbon son-of-a-bitch,” but he knew how to stare down an officer if he had to. When the report of a suspicious death had come down almost a week ago, Rowlston had barked with apparent relish that he and the recently assigned Columbo were going to “go rattle some pussy doctors.” Columbo braced himself for the perilous ride and, even worse, the barrage of insults, bigoted and blue jokes, and drunken tantrums he’d come to expect from the military cop. 

Rowlston had been a reasonably effective investigator, ever-vigilant for inconsistencies and character flaws he could exploit for a confession or a recantation. He was fearless, a result, Columbo suspected, of the copious amount of grain alcohol in which he regularly pickled his brain. After an inebriated misstep during an attempted nocturnal urination had led to Sgt. Rowlston’s demise, Columbo, the guiltily mischievous former altar boy, reminded himself of the sergeant’s “good” traits, then high-tailed it to the nearest company he could find to radio in the bad news. 

Rather than reeling Columbo back in, however, Col. “Iron Knees” Kreutzer (Oklahoma State star fullback, ’32-‘34) was adamant that Sgt. Rowling’s death not be in vain and that Columbo, solo, bring one back for the team, in the form of a successful resolution of the Shoop murder. Show must go on, and all that. 

Sgt. Donald Shoop had been among the casualties in an infantry attack some 40 miles north of the 4007th, and he’d been flown eight days before to the MASH unit. He’d taken some shrapnel in the chest, but, miraculously, it had missed any crucial cardiac plumbing or organs. The patient’s prognosis had been excellent – until, of course, he’d died in his sleep a few days later. 

While stranger things happened in a military hospital, the physician who examined the body prior to its shipment, Dr. Benjamin Franklin Pierce, had noted some curious fibers on the sergeant’s tongue. Those fibers, and a thread fragment found between Shoop’s bicuspids led Dr. Pierce to a verdict of death by misadventure. After being reminded by countless individuals that there was a war going on and that young men were dying on a regular basis, Pierce finally managed to get through to CID command that he wasn’t going to just let this one go. 

In the interim, the hospital’s patients largely had scattered to the winds – back to their companies, stateside, in one case to his final reward by way of an infection. 

“You know this Sgt. Shoop got killed a week or so ago?” Columbo began in what was his best interrogatory style. “I’m investigating his death.” 

“He was a boorish, ungentlemanly swine,” the lieutenant drawled, then looked away. “Very un-Christian of me, I know. One man’s death, I suppose.” 

Columbo blinked. “What, sir?” 

“What do you mean, what?” 

“I’m sorry – what about one man’s death? You mean Sgt. Shoop?” 

Maubrey smiled in a kindly manner. “My apologies. One man’s death diminishes us all, as John Donne said. Although how the sergeant’s death diminished any of us is beyond my feeble comprehension. What’s amusing, Private, if I may ask?” 

Columbo looked alarm. Back in the neighborhood, Father Donnelly and Sgt. Gilhooley, the beat cop, wielded the lion’s share of authority, and they were benign dictators. Over here, there was a small army, you should pardon the expression, of straight-backed men with far more stripes and stars and other thingamajigs on their uniforms than Columbo figured he’d ever possess. He’d always enjoyed a good prank, but over here, a little amusement bought you a weekend cleaning latrines. 

“I wasn’t amused or nothing, sir,” the private assured him. “It’s just you talk so good. You been to college, haven’t you?”

Maubrey leaned back on his pillow. “One of the finest institutions of higher learning the South has to offer, Private. Hardly matters in my current circumstances, however. The great equalizer, war is. Now, may I ask you why you’ve sought me out?” 

“Well, you’re one of the few witnesses mentioned in Captain Pierce’s original report of Shoop’s death, and I just wanted to ask you a question or two, if that’s OK?” 

“Certainly.” Maubrey sat upright against the head of his cot. “Although I must say I barely qualify as any kind of witness.” 

“Did you see or hear anything that night, sir?” 

“I’m afraid I did not. I was sleeping the sleep of the dead. Or I suppose I should say, of the seriously wounded.” 

Columbo nodded. “I ain’t had time to talk to the docs yet. Were you doped up for your leg?” 

The lieutenant shook his head. “The pain was starting to go away, I’d started walking a few yards a day around the hospital on my crutch, and it was the first night since my injury I was able to fall asleep of my own accord.” 

“I see, sir… Now, you were in this cot, and Sgt. Shoop was, what, next door here?” 

“The unfortunate sergeant was two cots away, to my right. A colored fella, a private, I believe, occupied the cot you’re now sitting on.” 

“Which, I’m afraid, you neglected to call in reservations for,” a cheerful but firm voice interrupted suddenly from above Columbo’s shoulder. He hadn’t seen Dr. Pierce approach. “So I’m going to have to ask you to leave the main dining room here, maybe go sit in the bar until we get a free operating table. I think Guy Lombardo and the Royal Hematomas are playing tonight.” 

“Huh?” gawped Columbo, who’d veered off the road at “reservations.” 

“Amscray, Private,” Pierce ordered. “I don’t like your cotside manner.” 

“The private was being a perfect gentleman,” Lt. Maubrey protested. 

“Let me rephrase myself: I don’t like him practicing his cotside manner here. Private?” 

“Yes, sir,” Columbo said, jumping up and hot-footing it to the Pre-Op door. He stopped dead before disappearing through it. “There is just one thing, sir…” 

Pierce turned toward him. “Validate your parking? Only if you parked in the hospital lot. And on top of Major Winchester.” 

“No, sir. I just was wondering if you’d have a few minutes to talk about the Shoop death?” 

The doctor fell silent. “You with CID?” 

“Private Columbo, sir.” 

Pierce inspected the short, unshaven, disheveled military cop. “Why don’t you drop by The Swamp for afternoon cocktails?” 

“I didn’t see any swamp around—” 

The captain sighed. “Just ask somebody out there to point you toward The Swamp, while I tell this foot soldier back here why he isn’t a foot soldier any more.” 

**

The Greeks were still shouting and laughing and roasting dead sheep as Columbo wandered in search of The Swamp. As he located Pierce’s tent, the sound of muscled and bawdy Mediterraneans was replaced with the majestic tones of a doubtlessly fat North European woman, emanating from within the assembly of poles, canvas, and netting. 

Despite Pierce’s unorthodox garb, Columbo expected to find the clinically tidy, taut-sheeted quarters of a nimble-brained, quick-tongued physician. Instead, he found The Swamp to live fully up to its moniker, down to a genuine still, like something out of a hillbilly movie. The “damage” was focused around two of the tent’s three distinguishable cots. On the third lie a corpulent, balding man, an incongruous black velvet sleeping mask in place over his eyes, his scrupulously neat fingers laced over his stomach as he murmured blissfully to the operatic strains of a nearby record player. 

“Ah, sir?” Columbo attempted. “Sir?” 

The murmuring stopped, and a severe frown tightened the reclining man’s lips. “Please. Disappear.” 

The private stopped. “Is that Wagner?” 

“Vog-ner,” the masked man, a major, corrected. His features then reconformed. “You know, um, Wagner?” 

“Yeah, sure,” Columbo responded. “My girlfriend likes this kinda stuff. She’s always takin’ me to concerts and ballets and stuff. Hey, this is that Valkyrie thing, ain’t it?” 

The Wagner aficionado bolted into a sitting position, ripping his sleeping mask away. He gazed in horrified wonderment at the slovenly, compact soldier before him. “You enjoy Der Valkyrie? Winchester, by the way; Major Charles Emerson Winchester.” 

He’d pronounced it Chahles, like some hoity society guy in one of the gangster movies Columbo liked. “Private Columbo, sir. I’m with CID, the military police.” 

Winchester chuckled, seemingly to himself. “An operatic policeman. Shades of Gilbert and Sullivan.” 

“The Mikado,” Columbo supplied. “Right?” 

“My God,” Winchester gasped. “Please, private, do have a seat. Would you like a beverage? I have the last of a delightful German dessert wine that would go excellently with our Wagner. Or perhaps you’d enjoy a sip of Dr. Pierce’s own home brew and septic tank disinfectant, which happens to be the perfect accompaniment to an evening of Spike Jones and, ha, cow-tipping.” 

“Actually, sir, I’m on duty, and I don’t think the brass at HQ would like it too much if I got tipsy on the job.” 

Winchester nodded. “Commendable dedication to duty. Now, precisely what brings you to this garden spot of Southeast Asia? Is the game afoot?”

“Huh?” 

“Sherlock Holmes, man, Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Genre fiction, but nonetheless of the highest caliber. Are we pursuing some mystery, a bit of skullduggery?” 

Columbo dropped onto what he assumed was Pierce’s cot, exhausted. “I don’t know about that, sir. Hey, wait a minute – you’re one of the doctors, right?” 

Winchester stiffened. “The doctor, I should say. Yes?” 

“Were you around the night Sgt. Shoop got killed?” 

The major’s left eyebrow arched. “Yesss, I was on duty that evening. However, I was under the impression Pierce had abandoned his pathetic attempt at sleuthing. Surely, the ‘good’ sergeant met his end by natural means.”
 

“Then you don’t think anybody pulled any funny business?” 

“Funny business,” Winchester chortled. “Charming gangland argot. No, I do not subscribe to Pierce’s belief that someone punched Sgt. Shoop’s ticket, to borrow your quaint gangland argot.” 

“In the report Capt. Pierce sent us, he said something about a pillow, something about some fibers or something.” 

Winchester shook his head in amusement. “The man has read one too many Agatha Christie novels. Private, I will concede that Pierce found fibers from Shoop’s pillow in the unfortunate fellow’s mouth, but there are myriad explanations for this phenomenon.” 

“Sir?” 

Winchester sighed patiently. “There are many possible explanations. Perhaps Sgt. Shoop experienced some sort of seizure associated with respiratory failure that caused him to involuntarily bite his pillow. Perhaps it was an example of rigor – ah, muscular reaction following death. Perhaps the sergeant slept with his mouth opened, and happened to aspirate some fibers. I will attest that he most certainly was a mouth breather of the lowest order,” he added with disdain. 

Columbo sat up. “What do mean, sir?” 

“Well, although I am wont to denigrate the deceased, I must say that Sgt. Shoop achieved levels of reptilian repugnance unique even for this pit of proletarianism.” Winchester held a hand up to still the baffled private. “In short, the sergeant was a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal overly impressed with his manly prowess and given to offensive racial humor, complete with amusing dialectives.” 

“He didn’t care for Negroes?” Columbo interpreted. 

“He did not care for Negroes, Koreans, Jews, Catholics, the Irish, Italians – you will pardon me -- or individuals of almost any non-Anglo-Saxon ethnicity. A man of low breeding and bigotries. And were I of the Freudian ilk, God forfend, I would surmise that neither was he enamored of the feminine sex.” 

“And why’s that, sir?” 

“Because this wolf in non-comm’s garb was constantly harassing and haranguing every nurse in sight and regaling every male he could corner with tales of feminine conquest and degradation.” 

“Like what, sir?” 

Winchester looked momentarily as if he’d found a slice of Velveeta atop his foie gras. He inhaled courageously. “For example, he informed me of the nimble and double-jointed nature of a girl he had bedded in my native Boston, before segueing into a delightful and medically fascinating case study of a Georgia ‘gal’ who could, quote, do things with her tongue one would not believe. Not since the days of the Algonquin Round Table had there been such a sparkling conversationalist.” 

“Did he get anywhere with any of the nurses?” Columbo inquired as cautiously as he could. 

“Most certainly not. Our nursing staff, while given to excessive primping and cosmetics use, is uniformly professional and immune to the odious charms of creatures such as Sgt. Shoop.” 

“Why, Chah-les, you sweet talker, you,” Pierce gushed, yanking open the tent door and bee-lining to the still. He tapped a martini glass full of clear liquid, quaffed an ounce, and sighed sublimely. “Wait’ll the nurses hear about your poetic waxing, which reminds me, isn’t it time to touch up your scalp, maybe in the Mess Tent?” 

Winchester smirked. “Always the very model of social comportment, aren’t we, Pierce? As a matter of fact, I am assisting our young Hawkshaw in his ill-conceived investigation of our recent ‘murder.’ Honestly, Pierce, are things so tedious around here that we have to contrive such melodramas?” 

Pierce ignored Winchester as he riffled through his foot locker. He emerged holding up a white pillowcase. 

“Ah, wonderful, we’re surrendering,” Winchester murmured. “Mayhap I can make it home in time for the opening curtain of La Boheme…” 

“Sorry, Chuck – it ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings uncle. Shoop’s pillowcase, Columbo, found at the scene of the crime. What do you make of that?” 

The private accepted the pillowcase hesitantly, and peered at both sides, along the seams, at the corners. “Welll, there’s these marks here – teeth marks, right? Those have gotta be Sgt. Shoop’s.” 

“Yeah, yeah,” Pierce encouraged. “Now, why would Sgt. Shoop have bitten his pillow unless somebody was trying to smother him? Or of course he was dreaming about eating a giant marshmallow?” 

“Rigor, Pierce, rigor,” Winchester insisted, pinching the bridge of his nose. 

“Did you notice this, sir?” Columbo asked, holding the case up by the corners. “On the other side of where the bite marks are. See how the cloth’s stretched out, how the, uh, the threads are kinda pulled. Almost like something was pushing into the pillowcase.” 

“Into Shoop’s throat, to block off the airway,” Pierce said, slapping his hip. “Brilliant, Hercule.” 

“Excuse me, sir?” 

“Don’t mind me, just keep on deducing.” 

“One would have to plunk down a quarter to get suspense like this at home,” Winchester sighed, laying back on his cot. “I wonder if we could take this production on the road, perhaps to Mongolia?” 

“You wash these pillowcases between patients, Doc?” Columbo inquired. 

“On a case-by-case basis,” Pierce confirmed. “And it’s Hawkeye, Columbo.” 

“Yes, sir,” the private nodded absently. “I was just noticing these marks here, on the same side the cloth’s stretched. Kinda like dirt, but not exactly.” He held the case to his nose. “Very familiar…Tires!” 

“Pardon?” Winchester rose from his cot. 

Columbo held the pillowcase out. “My cousin Mo, he works at a tire plant out in Queens, is piling up tires all day long, puttin’ tires on cars, patchin’ tires…” 

“Like something out of Dickens,” Winchester lilted. 

“So whenever Mo comes over for Sunday dinner or Thanksgiving or something, his hands always smell like tires. He washes ‘em and scrubs ‘em, but he can’t get that tire smell off his hands. We let him carve the turkey last Christmas, the turkey smells like tires. That’s what I’m smellin’ here, Doc – tires.” 

“Rubber?” Hawkeye grabbed the pillowcase and sniffed. “Yeah, I’m getting it now. What’s that mean, Columbo?” 

Columbo clapped his hands together. “I don’t have the slightest idea.” 

“Attention, campers,” a voice suddenly penetrated the air, accompanied by an electronic squeal and heavy static. “The first annual 4077th Olympic Barbecue and Greek Cultural Festival is now underway. All mutton gluttons, lam it over to the Mess Tent, or ‘ewe’ll’ miss out.” 

Pierce clapped his cowboy hat back on his head. “Well, Sheriff Columbo, you wanna mosey on over to the chuckwagon. It’s usually called the upchuckwagon, but we got a new chef. How ‘bout the new school marm? Coming, Miss Bluenose?” 

Winchester stretched out, slipping his sleeping mask back over his eyes. “While the prospect of alfresco ‘chow’ prepared by sweaty Mediterraneans sets my palate to quivering, I believe I will remain here with my Vog-ner, thank you.” 

“Guess barbecuing’s not the major’s aria,” Pierce punned, exiting the tent with Columbo in tow. 

** 

Private Columbo was astonished. There was practically a party atmosphere here, in the midst of an Army hospital, in the midst of the war. Americans, Greeks, and Koreans (South, Columbo hoped) filled the tent with a jumble of laughter, chatter, and good-natured nationalistic bragging. Hawkeye ushered him to a long serving table, where a tall, cadaverous man was dishing up fragrant slices of lamb. 

“Igor, my friend will take a drumstick,” Pierce ordered, “and I’ll have a couple of breasts, hopefully attached to Hot Lips.” 

Igor slopped sheep onto a metal tray. “First time I’ve served up an animal I could identify.” He deposited a dollop of purple goop beside the meat, Hawkeye lifted the tray, sniffed the goop, and raised a brow. 

Igor shrugged. “We couldn’t get any mint jelly, so I mixed some of that special mouthwash Major Winchester got from the States with some grape jelly.” 

“I’ll pass on the scalloped potatoes,” Hawkeye murmured.  “C’mon, Sherlock.” 

The pair shoved through the throng; a huge Greek hugged Hawkeye and Columbo simultaneously, regaling both with ouzo fumes. Finally, the private and the captain located a couple of seats between the blonde bombshell in the pre-op and a pleasant-looking, bespectacled man with a straw collar and, Columbo realized, a Roman collar. 

“Father,” Pierce greeted. He turned to the nurse. “Mom.” 

The nurse turned with a sour glare. “Why don’t you try a big mouthful of lamb, Doctor? It’s delicious.” 

“Private Columbo, I’d like you to meet Major Houlihan and Father Francis Mulcahy,” Hawkeye said. 

“Majjr, Fddr,” Columbo mumbled through a mouth full of roasted meat. He held up a hand as he masticated his lamb. “Shorry, but dis shtuff’s shwell.” A huge lump moved past his Adam’s apple. “Wow, this is the best chow I’ve had since I left home.” 

Hawkeye stared at him shoveling lamb into his maw, then turned to Houlihan. “How’s Lankowitz?” 

Major Houlihan’s stern features softened. “We’ve got him sedated again, but he’s in as bad shape emotionally as he is physically.” 

“Oh, dear,” Mulcahy breathed. 

The doctor nodded soberly. “Sidney Freedman’s coming in for tonight’s game. I’ll ask him to have a word with the kid.” 

“Hawkeye, do you think maybe it might help if I…?” the priest inquired, rising. 

“I’d appreciate it, Father, thanks,” Hawkeye said, grinning. “But why don’t you finish your lunch first? I’d hate for you to sacrifice your lamb.” 

Mulcahy smiled. “Oh, we quit doing that a few centuries back. Private Columbo, you’re an M.P.? Are you here on, um, official business?” 

“The Shoop death,” Hawkeye explained. 

Houlihan frowned. “Oh, for Pete’s sake, Pierce. Are you still beating that drum?”
Columbo put his fork down. “Were you on duty the night the sergeant died?” 

She straightened. “I was, but Shoop was alive when I did my end-of-shift check. We’d just gotten through about 36 hours of surgery – a company of Marines had just taken a hill 30 miles north, and the Pre-Op was packed with casualties. I knocked off about midnight.” 

“And you discovered Sgt. Shoop was dead when?” 

“Four a.m. or so,” Hawkeye supplied. “I couldn’t sleep, so I dropped by to check a few charts. Shoop looked like he’d been dead a good hour or so. It didn’t make sense, since his injuries had been pretty minor – a shoulder wound, no damage to any of the major organs or arteries. He’d been having a lot of pain in the shoulder, though, so we’d knocked him out so he’d get through the night OK. When I checked him over for any signs of a reaction to his medication, I discovered those fibers in his mouth.” 

Columbo nodded, picking up his fork and spearing another slice of lamb. “Who was on duty in the Pre-Op after you left, Major? Anybody who might’ve come in or out between midnight and four?” 

Houlihan pursed her considerable lips. “Well, Nurse Kelly…Pierce, of course…oh, and Mrs. Kee.” 

“Mrs. Kee, ma’am?” Columbo pursued. 

“She’s one of the locals,” Hawkeye supplied. “She’s about 50 or so. Widow – her husband and son got killed in a mortar attack a month or so ago, and we’ve been letting her sort of help around the camp until we can locate her family.”
“Isn’t that against regulations?” Columbo asked mildly. 

Hawkeye and Houlihan exchanged a glance. “Well, I know it’s not regular Army,” the nurse began, “but it isn’t really hurting anything, is it?” 

Columbo smiled woefully. “Look, H.Q. sends me to hell and gone – pardon me, ma’am – and my sergeant gets killed before we even get here. Now, I got this murder, or whatever it is, to worry about, and me with only about two months with the military police. I think I’ve got enough to think about without worrying about you guys running a charity for orphans and widows. Don’t you?” 

Houlihan sighed, relieved, and Hawkeye relaxed. 

“Now, besides Lt. Maubrey and Sgt. Shoop, what other patients were in the Pre-Op that night?” Columbo half-shouted as a whoop rose from the rear of the Mess Tent. “Especially in the bunks on either side of Shoop’s?” 

“I’ll get Radar – the company clerk – to get you a list,” Hawkeye said. “Maubrey was two beds away to Shoop’s left, and a private, Henderson, I think, was between Maubrey and Shoop.” 

“He was the Negro?” the private inquired. 

“That make a difference?” Hawkeye asked warily. 

Columbo looked at the doctor, surprised by his tone. “No, sir, but Lt. Maubrey mentioned a Negro being in the cot next to Shoop’s. I’m just trying to get a picture in my mind. But I do gotta ask – this Shoop, I understand he wasn’t a very open-minded fella. That he didn’t like Negroes too much.” 

Houlihan grunted. “‘Open-minded’ would  imply the man had one. Surely you don’t think Henderson would’ve killed Shoop just because he was a bigot?” 

“I’m just looking at all the possibilities, ma’am,” Columbo shrugged. 

“Well, Henderson’s an impossibility,” Hawkeye stated. 

“And why’s that, Doc?” 

The captain breathed. “OK. Shoop was smothered with his own pillow. To smother someone, you have to have something to smother with.” 

“I don’t get you…” 

“Henderson was here because his company got pinned down on that hill up north. A Russian grenade dropped in for the party, and Henderson tried to give it the heave-ho. Unfortunately, he didn’t heave fast enough. He got shipped home to a veteran’s hospital to have a couple of hooks installed.” 

“Geez,” Columbo murmured, appalled. He sat quietly for a moment as the racket across the tent grew. “Well, who was on the other side of Shoop?” 

“Goose eggs there, too, Columbo,” Hawkeye said. “Went into a coma an hour after he came out of surgery, and died a few hours after Shoop did without waking up.” 

Columbo rubbed a hand over his bristly face. “Whoo, boy. Lemme ask you something, Doc. Did it seem to you like Lt. Maubrey and Sgt. Shoop knew each other real well?” 

Hawkeye shook his head. “They came from two different companies, stationed about a hundred miles apart. And even if they did know each other…”
A cacophony of Greek and American voices erupted to the rear of the tent, louder than before. Hawkeye and Columbo craned to determine the source of the noise, and the doctor slapped the table before climbing to his feet and pushing through the crowd. 

Maubrey and one of the Greek soldiers faced each other over a table, their right hands clasped and white-knuckled as they wrestled. A circle of men cheered their respective countrymen. 

“Lieutenant,” Pierce admonished. “I said get a little exercise for your legs, not enter the 1952 Olympics.” 

Maubrey looked up, gritted his teeth, and suddenly slammed his opponent’s fist to the table. The crowd whooped. 

“My apologies, Captain,” Maubrey offered as the Greek, grinning, slapped him heartily on the shoulder. “In my part of the country, the manly sport of arm-wrestling is a major recreation. These fellows were kind enough to challenge me to a match, and I felt it was my duty to the United Nations effort here to take them up on it.” 

“Yeah, well, I’m giving you diplomatic immunity. Scat.” 

“Yes, sir,” Maubrey smiled, saluting his Greek friend and retrieving his crutches from the bench beside him. Columbo and Pierce watched the soldier move slowly but purposefully through the crowd, out into the camp. 

“Columbo,” Hawkeye probed, “Why did you want to know if Maubrey knew Shoop? You know something I don’t?” 

The young private turned to the doctor. “Well, Doc, it’s like this. When I first got here and went to the Pre-Op, I asked Major Houlihan about Lt. Maubrey. From across the room. ‘Way across the room.” 

“So? I answer when I hear my name, too. I roll over, too, at least if one of the nurses wants to scratch my belly.” 

“But Lt. Maubrey said the night of the murder, he was fast asleep and didn’t hear a peep, even while the guy two beds away was being murdered. Now, I could understand if the nurse on duty didn’t hear anything from where she was, across the room at that desk, but two beds away? I get the feeling Lt. Maubrey’s the kinda guy that’s always alert, always pays attention to everything going on around him. The way he woke up and looked at me and Major Houlihan when I asked about him. It just seemed odd; almost like he was waiting for somebody to show up.” 

“Well, you can cross him off your suspect list, too, Columbo. Maubrey just got those crutches four days ago. He came in here with both legs shot up pretty bad. We patched up his femoral artery, and he’s going to have not too much more than a noticeable limp and an honorary retirement from his polo club when he goes home. But the night Shoop was killed, Lt. Maubrey couldn’t do anything with those legs except play Dixie on ‘em with a couple of spoons. He couldn’t stand, much less get two cots over to smother Shoop.” 

“Ah,” Columbo said, unhappily. “So that would just seem to leave Mrs. Kee…” 

“Who doesn’t even speak enough English to know what a jerk Shoop was.” 

“…or Nurse Kelly…” 

“Who may not be easy, but who definitely isn’t homicidal.” 

“…or you.”

Hawkeye looked at Columbo. “Hmm, Kelly does have a furtive manner...”
** 
“Oh, Lieutenant! Lieutenant Maubrey!” 
Maubrey dug one crutch into the dirt and turned to see the young M.P. running toward him, out of breath. “Well, it’s the inquisitive Private Columbo. And how are you this fine afternoon?” 
Columbo gulped some oxygen. “Oh, I’m swell, sir. Especially now I’ve got some chow in me.” 

The lieutenant glanced back at the still-raucous Mess Tent. “Lot of the folks I associate with, the brass, likely wouldn’t approve of this kind of do. Not properly military, all that. I think it’s wonderful these folks manage to keep their morale up in the midst of all this. Not easy to do when there’s so much confusion over here.” 

“Yeah, there’s a lot goin’ on here – lot more than at H.Q.” 

Maubrey shook his head with a kind smile. “No, Columbo. I’m alluding to social confusion, ideological confusion. This is a whole new breed of war, my friend, you mark my word.” 

Columbo grinned sheepishly. “Now you’re losin’ me, sir.” 

Maubrey appraised the small man. “Now, I would doubt that, seriously. War throughout the centuries has been pretty much entirely about real estate and who oughtta own it, Columbo. Sure, there’ve been religious and political differences between the folks, but it’s mostly been about our fellas versus their fellas in a tug-o-war over some fertile parcel. Even the Big War a few years back was about Hitler grabbin’ off prime chunks of Europe, least ways to start out. Had Der Fuehrer opted to breed his virulent brand of hatred on his own back 40, he’d likely still be shouting around like a rabid banty rooster. 

“The winner takes the spoils: He gets to set the rules for the game, and he owns the stadium where it’s played. You take our own War Between The States. Y’all haven’t surmised, I’m a Southern boy, from Atlanta. Georgia.” 

“Figured somewhere around there,” Columbo said. 

“Well, after the war was over and our boys tossed it in, it was like a department store after-Christmas sale: Most everything worth having was gone, and the Yankees – you’ll pardon me, I mean no affront – the Yankees fell on everything else wasn’t nailed to the scorched ground. Carpetbaggers, we called them. They saw a killing to be made in land, industry, politics, and they’d stop at nothing. Took what they wanted, hell with the price or the consequences, and moved on.” 

The lieutenant had become more pensive as he stared at the hilly Korean countryside. Now he blinked, and turned back to Columbo with an odd smile. “Sorry, Columbo – didn’t mean to wander off on you. That’s the story I grew up with, that my mama and daddy grew up with. But you know what? Wind had blown the other way, we’d be flyin’ the Stars and Bars over New Jersey, and you’d be the one with the funny accent.” 

Columbo nodded thoughtfully. “I get what you’re saying, sir. I think.” 

“I think about it, I ‘spose this’s just another land grab, no matter how we dress it up in fancy ideological talk. Don’t get me wrong, Columbo – I believe in why we’re here. The Communists have never been proper stewards of their land or their people, and we just deed this place over to them, in 20 years, it won’t be fit for raising rice or children. I’m just saying, we have to know why we take up arms, and not blind ourselves to the consequences of our actions.”

“Yes, sir,” Columbo murmured. 

“Once again, my apologies, Private,” Maubrey said, digging a crutch into the hard-packed dirt and propelling himself again toward the Pre-Op. “Last few weeks, I’ve found myself reflecting more and more on the mortality of the race, on issues of life and death.” 

“Cause of Sgt. Shoop getting killed and all?” the MP prompted. 

Maubrey didn’t break pace. “Actually, as a result of my own brush with the Grim Reaper, Columbo. While I lament the death of any man, Sgt. Shoop’s passing was virtually inevitable.” 

“You mean it was gonna happen no matter what?” 

“Yes, Columbo,” Maubrey confirmed without condescension. “A fellow like that, filled with the poison of hatred and intolerance and unbridled self-indulgence, was bound to meet a bad end from some quarter.” 

“Did you know him, sir? Talk to him?” 

“I never saw his face prior to this war, and once I took the measure of the man, I never exchanged so much as a single word. You see, Columbo, while I may be a son of the South and of wealth, my father was a good Christian man who believed devoutly in the bond between all men and women, regardless of race or origin. I’d have little to say to a man such as that.” 

Columbo scuffed at a rock. “Any idea who might’ve killed him?” 

“I wouldn’t care to speculate. Of course, I was asleep a good part of the evening.” 

“And you’re a sound sleeper, Lieutenant?” 

“I’ve had a spell of insomnia lately, but yes, as a matter of custom.” 

Columbo sighed. “You see, sir, I’m having a real hard time with this one. I haven’t been a policeman for so long, and the only real training I’ve had’s been listenin’ to Philip Marlowe on the radio and a couple Lone Wolf movies.” 

“Well, what’s troubling you? Perhaps I can help?” 

“I was hopin’ you’d say that, sir,” Columbo said cheerfully. 

** 

“This is my cot, of course,” Maubrey pointed. His arm moved in an arc to a point two cots away, where a young man with a bandaged head was engrossed in a luridly jacketed copy of Manhunt. “This is where Sgt. Shoop was recovering. Between us was Private Harrison, Henderson, that poor fellow lost his hands. Hardly a candidate for murder, I wouldn’t think.” 

“Yes, sir.” Columbo frowned. With about two-and-a-half feet between cots, and each cot about three feet across, Maubrey’s cot was a good eight feet or so from Shoop’s. 

“Wouldn’t be easy,” Maubrey sympathized. “Though it was dark here, and the nurse was away across the room, it would take an audacious man to get up, walk over to the sergeant’s bunk, and murder him. You agree?” 

Columbo pulled off his cap and swiped his forehead. “Yes, sir. I can’t see how one of the patients coulda done it. Of course, in a dark room a doctor or a nurse mighta pretended to check him out and put that pillow on his face while he was all doped up.” 

“Hardly likely,” the lieutenant insisted. “Why in the world would one of the staff here have committed such an act?” 

“Well, I hate to say it,” Columbo began, nodding toward the nurse now stationed at the work desk. Nurse Kelly’s pretty, plump, very Asian features were focused on the paperwork before her. “But folks have been telling me what a wolf Sgt. Shoop was, and you said he didn’t care much for people who weren’t his kind.” 

“Columbo,” Maubrey responded patiently. “I don’t know how long you’ve been over here, but as the man said, it takes all kinds. There are a lot of men who get very lonely in the company of nothing but other fellows, and there are others who could care less about political ideologies and who signed up to use our yellow brothers and sisters for target practice. I have observed Nurse Kelly to be the very model of professionalism. Can you imagine she doesn’t deal with both bigotry and untoward advances every day. No reasonable person would kill a man like Shoop for no more than a few hateful or lecherous words.” 

“How about Hawk—uh, Capt. Pierce?” Columbo persisted. “He seems like a real, um, you know, open-minded sort of guy. You think he coulda decided the world might be better off without a guy like Shoop?” 

Maubrey lowered himself to his cot, placing his crutches on the floor to his right. “Let me tell you something about Dr. Pierce. I’ve seen all sorts come through this post-op in the last few weeks – North Koreans spitting hatred for everything American; young men so knotted up in pain they can react with nothing but anger and acrimony; old officers who have no use for anyone doesn’t have a double order of fruit salad on their uniform. The man shows equal regard and care for all of ‘em, as if his very life depended on protecting theirs’. I can’t conceive of Dr. Pierce forsaking that reverence for human life.” 

Columbo sighed again, more deeply, and slumping onto the vacant cot next to Maubrey’s. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. You believe in ghosts, sir? Maybe the sergeant killed himself, shoved a pillow on his own face.” His head dropped, and he began rubbing his chin. 

“Don’t give in to defeatism, Private,” Maubrey said with a touch of the military bearing that had been blasted out of him. “We’ve eliminated several possibilities. You look hard at the ones that remain. I’m wagering the answer might be right before you.” 

Columbo looked up. “Um, thanks, sir. I’ll keep at it. Hey, I better let you get some rest. Thanks for the help.” 

“You need anything else, Columbo, you know where I’ll be,” Maubrey said drily, patting his damaged leg. 

**

“Back in the old neighborhood, when I was growing up, people tended to say pretty much what they meant,” Columbo told Tom Pierce. “There wasn’t a lotta playing around or pussy-footing. Somebody had a problem with you, you knew it.” 

The lieutenant’s back was turned to the assistant M.E., who was weighing John Doe No. 6’ liver. 

“What I’m saying is, when you grew up with people like that, you learned to tell pretty quick when somebody’s not being straight with you,” the cop continued. “Now I maybe wasn’t the brightest kid in the world back then, but I could tell Maubrey was playing some kinda game. He didn’t answer any of my questions straight. 

“I ask him does he knew Shoop. He says, no, he’d never saw the sergeant’s face before the war. Why didn’t he just say he didn’t know him, he had no idea who he was? I ask if he has any idea who mighta killed Shoop. He doesn’t care to speculate. Then he tells me he was asleep ‘a good part of the evening.’ Now, I can respect he doesn’t want to put the finger on anybody, but why not just tell me to peddle my papers? And why not just tell me he was sleeping when the murder occurred? 

“Then he tells me he hasn’t been sleeping so good lately. And he goes outta his way to clear not just the guy in the next bed of the murder, but also the nurse on duty that night and your granddad. Now, whattya make of all that?” 

“Not a prosecutable case,” Pierce said, his hand in the corpse’s abdomen. “But just shooting from the hip, I’d say he was trying to tell you something. He knew Shoop – maybe their paths crossed in Korea. And you look at the nature of the murder. Very risky, right?” 

“Bingo,” Columbo clapped his hand on the exam table. He blanched, and turned back. “Jeez, I don’t know how you can do this stuff, Tom. Yeah, you’re right – the killer was taking a pretty big chance, smothering Shoop in a roomful of soldiers, even a dark room. It was almost like he or she didn’t care if he got caught.” 

“Or she.” 

“Well, at that point, I had a pretty good idea it was a he. And I was pretty sure I knew which he it was.” 

Pierce hefted a spleen. “Even though he had a pretty airtight alibi. I mean, I don’t know how severe Maubrey’s injuries were, but I can’t imagine him getting up, crawling over, jamming a pillow over Shoop’s face, and crawling back to his cot.” 

“That was a problem,” Columbo concurred. “Plus, why give me all these little indirect signals he did it? Why play games with me?” 

Pierce dropped the spleen onto the electronic scale with a wet sound that made Columbo’s stomach flip. “So what’d you do then?” 

The lieutenant grinned. “What we always did in my neighborhood when we had a problem...” 

** 

“And when was your last confession?” Father Francis Mulcahy inquired, settling onto his immaculately made cot. Everything in the tent was immaculate. 

Columbo squinted. “Boy, I dunno...I talked to a chaplain a couple months ago, but he was a Jewish guy, so I don’t know if that counts...” 

“It was very likely kosher.” Mulcahy smiled gently at his ecumenical quip. “Do you have any sins you’d like to confess, Private?” 

“Well, I guess I feel a little guilty,” Columbo admitted. “I lost my sergeant – Sgt. Rowlston – a few days ago, and I gotta admit, I didn’t much care for the guy. He drank all the time, and he was a pretty mean bast— Jeez, sorry, Father. Ooh, I didn’t mean Jeez. I...” 

“Calm down, son,” Mulcahy said. “I think He can understand that your sergeant was a difficult man, and that you’re only human in your feelings toward him. Perhaps you could try harder to understand that all men suffer from weakness and temptation. Hate the sin, love the sinner.” 

“Gee, I’ll try that, Father. Some of these brass, though...” 

Mulcahy patted Columbo on the shoulder. “He doesn’t ask you to be superhuman. Is there anything else I can do for you? We’ve got a half-price sale on commiseration this week.” 

“Well, I guess maybe you could help me with something. You’re like an expert on guilt, right?” 

“So to speak.” 

“OK, well, say this guy did something awful, and he starts kinda hintin’ around about it, like he wants to tell you but something’s keeping him from spilling the beans.” 

The priest leaned forward. “Is this about the murder? You can tell me if you wish – we’ll keep it under the Seal of the Confession.” 

Columbo sighed. “The guy I think did it just almost came out and confessed to me, which is screwy enough, but he kept dancin’ around it. Why would a guy want to confess but not want to confess?” 

Mulcahy’s eyes narrowed. “Hmm, let’s see. Pride, envy, wrath... Perhaps he’s testing you, seeing how close you are to nabbing him, if you’ll pardon the expression.” 

“Gee, if he’s testing me, he could be a little sneakier about it.” 

“All right. What if he’s protecting a secret? Something worse than murder?” 

“Worse than murder?” Columbo exclaimed. “I kinda thought murder was about as bad as it gets.” 

“It’s in the Top 10,” the father assured him. “But could this man have killed Sgt. Shoop to keep this secret? What’s important to your suspect? What’s valuable to him?” 

“Gosh, I dunno. I guess his country, definitely. And he talked a lot about his family. The Army? He seems like a good soldier, but he don’t seem real gung ho about the war.” 

“That’s a common symptom over here,” Mulcahy murmured. “What did he say about the war? About war in general?” 

“Ah, he was going on a lot about the Nazis and the Commies and the Civil War. A lot about the Civil War, about the Carpet Backers or something?” 

“Carpetbaggers?” Mulcahy frowned. 

“Yeah, that’s right. How these guys’s came and grabbed everything wasn’t nailed down.” Columbo put his hands on his knees and pursed his lips. “Hey, you think a guy would kill another guy just because he was a northerner or a southerner?” 

Mulcahy smiled ruefully and nodded his head toward the camp outside, toward the war. 

“Well, yeah,” Columbo conceded. 

** 

“Private,” an urgent voice whispered, nearly giving the MP a heart attack. Columbo, who’d been heading for the absent Col. Potter’s office, turned to find a stone-faced, narrow-eyed man studying him intently. 

He tapped his own chest. “You talking to me, sir?” 

The man, who wore captain’s stripes, stepped even closer. “How you coming along on the Shoop case, Columbo? Any leads. Any Reds behind the hedges?” 

“Huh?” 

“Any Commie collaborators? Any Bolsheviks in the woodpile?” 

Private Columbo’s forehead began to throb. “Sir, don’t get sore, but I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.” 

“Over here, kid,” the stranger growled, yanking Columbo behind the shower tent. “No need to play cute with me, Private. I’m Capt. Berlin, Irving Berlin, with Army Intelligence. So tell me about Shoop and our friend, Comrade Kee.” 

“Kee?” Columbo scratched his ear. “Wait a minute, you mean Mrs. Kee? The widow lady that’s been helping around the camp?” 

“Widow, huh?” Berlin grinned. It was the most frightening grin Columbo’d ever seen, short of Olive Rizzoletti’s when she’d found out he was between girlfriends. “The diabolical Mata Hari. You debriefed her yet?” 

Columbo blushed. “I ain’t done nothing to her, sir. I thought she was like an old lady or something. I don’t think she coulda killed the sergeant.” 

Berlin’s smile vanished, and he came nose-to-nose with Columbo. “Wake up, Farm Boy.” 

“I’m from New York – I never seen a fa—” 

“Columbo,” a hearty voice greeted. Hawkeye came around the corner of the tent. “You’re on the wrong side. Major Houlihan always uses the last stall to the right. I should know – I drilled the hole. So who’s your shifty-eyed buddy, Officer?” 

“This is Irving Berlin,” the MP stammered. 

Hawkeye grinned broadly. “Wow. Mr. Berlin, I loved your last five musicals, especially Annie, Get Your Silencer.” 

“Can it, Pierce,” Berlin snapped. 

“How’s it going, Flagg?” Hawkeye asked genially. “Private Columbo, this is Col. Flagg, late of the CIA. Man of A Thousand Psychoses, Scourge of the Red Menace and the American Mental Health Association. Grilling the private, Flagg, or just on a weekend sightseeing and torturing tour?” 

Flagg’s eye twitched. “Pierce, I could make you disappear in a heartbeat, and the only thing they’d find would be a pile of ashes.” 

Hawkeye snapped his fingers. “I saw that one. And then you pull a rabbit and a certificate of insanity out of your hat. C’mon, Flagg; why so curious about Mrs. Kee?” 

Flagg looked about furtively; Hawkeye lifted Columbo’s cap and glanced under it. “All right, Pierce. But this is top secret.” 

“Swear on my dear mother’s antimacassar. Not that I’m anti- or pro-macassar, mind you.” 

“OK. Shoop was a snitch for us, kept his eyes out for any information leaks among the non-comms. Some of these enlisted types get a bit too cozy with the indigenous Commie gooks.” 

“They used to play with Tommy Dorsey,” Hawkeye informed Columbo, whose pain was spreading rapidly to his temples and teeth. 

Flagg ignored Pierce. “I’m investigating the possibility that your so-called Mrs. Kee is part of a Commie cabal that snuffed out Shoop so he couldn’t rat her and her comrades out.” 

“In between boiling rice and de-flying the ox. Colonel, you ever consider a weight-loss program? Like maybe 16 ounces of frontal lobe? I’ll give you the military sociopath’s discount.” 

“Of course I’d expect a pinko leftie like you to buy into the ‘old widow’ routine.” 

“Well, the severe arthritis and the face like my old Aunt Greta’s handbag help,” Hawkeye said. “Tell you what, we’ve got this old guy in the village who I think’s been hijacking hogs and selling them to a chop shop. Flagg, as a physician, I have to advise you that you’ve furshloggin’ in the noggin’.” 

“Furshloggin’ like a fox,” Flagg murmured, glancing side-to-side. “I’ll flush this red viper out of the brush, Pierce; you just mind your sewing.” He adjusted his cap and strode back into the camp. 

“There’s a good reason to brush your teeth and avoid blows to the cranium,” Hawkeye said. “C’mon, the sun’s over the yardarm.” 

“Wha--?” 

The doctor grabbed his arm. “Cocktail time, Columbo.” 

“I gotta make a call at your colonel’s office first. You wanna meet back at The Pit?” 

“Swamp,” Hawkeye corrected. “Nah, I have to make a fashionable appearance at the Officer’s Club. See you in 30?” 

As Columbo, head throbbing, entered Col. Potter’s office, he noticed the hairy guy in the dress had been replaced by an 11-year-old. The kid started as the MP started forward. 

“Geez, Mister, you shouldn’t oughtta sneak up on a fella that way,”  the boy breathed. “You almost scared twenty years off my life, and I only got 19 to start.” 

“You gotta be Corporal O’Reilly, right?” Columbo guessed. “I need to make a call to – ” 

“C.I.D. headquarters, ASAP,” the owlish little man nodded, reaching for the handset. “And you can call me Radar, sir.” 

“I guess so,” Columbo mumbled. 

Ten minutes and a lot of high-pitched shouting later, Private Columbo was talking to Spenser at HQ. “Yeah, I’m still in one piece, but my head’s buzzin’ just somethin’ awful. You get that stuff I asked for yet?” 

“Yup,” the MP’s easy Wyoming accent crackled across the line. “For what it’s worth, anyway. Shoop was an Oldsmobile salesman stateside, Jersey; buncha jobs before that, all sales, looks like.” 

“Ever live in Georgia, down south anywhere?” 

White noise dominated for a moment. “Nope, no residence south of the Mason-Dixon. Killer from down that way?” 

“I don’t wanna say,” Columbo cautioned. “But could you check somebody else, maybe without Kreutzer findin’ out? Lt. Peter Maubrey – Monkey-Alpha-Umbrella-Bravo-Rover-Eggplant-Yonkers.” 

“Yonkers? Eggplant?”
“I never can remember that military spelling stuff. You check that out for me?” 

Spenser grunted affirmation. “You going after a louie, you better be wearing your combat gear.” 

“Nah, it ain’t like that. I got the feeling this one’s almost chompin’ to get on my hook, but he wants to see what kind of worm I got on there first.” 

“You have an affinity for the language,” Spenser drawled. “Mm, hold on.” Columbo heard a familiar bluster in the background. “That was Kreutzer. Wants to remind you about Knute Rockne, about keeping possession of the ball.” 

Private Columbo sighed. “Oh, I still got it, but I think its caught in a wringer.” 

“Not going so well, huh?” 

“Aw, I wouldn’t say that. I got a prime suspect don’t appear to have even know the victim, and who as far as I can see couldn’t have killed him. See ya, Spense.” He disconnected, catching O’Reilly peeking from behind a file. “Hey, Corporal, Radar, whattaya know about Sgt. Shoop, that guy died about a week ago?” 

“Uh, not much – I kinda mind my own business,” the kid offered coyly. “But he was the kinda guy my mom always said I should steer clear of. I never heard a guy with so many dirty jokes, an’ he was always making eyes at the nurses. I don’t think they cared much for it.” 

“You ever talk to him?” 

“The day after he came in. He asks where I’m from – that’s Ottumwa, Iowa – and he tells me how he knew this girl in Des Moines who could, geez, do I gotta say?” 

“It’d help. I won’t tell nobody.” 

Radar moved closer than Columbo might’ve liked – he could smell grape soda on the clerk’s breath. “Well, he says this girl could, uh, um, suck like a ’48 Electrolux XXX. What do you think of that?” 

“I think he wasn’t no gentleman,” Columbo stated. “Not like Lt. Maubrey, huh?” 

O’Reilly’s blush faded. “Oh, the lieutenant is an A-1 gentleman type of guy,” he said cheerfully. “I told him about my Aunt Geneva with the dropsy, an’ you could tell he was real interested.” 

“You ever see Shoop talk to Maubrey?” 

Radar squinted as he looked at the metal ceiling. “You know, that’s real funnylike. I only seen the sergeant talk to Lt. Maubrey once, and then he steered clear of him like a case of measles. Which was strange, seein’ how nobody much liked Sgt. Shoop and that didn’t keep him from bugging ‘em, anyhow. Like I said, though; I try not to get into other folks’ business.” 

Columbo clapped him on the shoulder. “That’s a good quality, Corporal.” 

** 

Though it was mid-afternoon, the Officer’s Club was doing land-office business. Columbo had figured that as a non-comm he’d have to do some fast talking to gain admittance, but apparently the “club” was not restricted. The corpselike guy from the Mess Tent was mopping around the feet of the assembled soldiers, doctors, patients, and nationals. Hawkeye, at a corner table with Lt. Maubrey, waved him over. 

“Hey, Lieutenant,” Columbo greeted cautiously, surveying Maubrey’s crisp uniform. “You’re not checkin’ out, are you?” 

The Southerner, his crutch at his right shoulder against the wall, smiled. “I don’t believe my physician will sign the papers yet, am I correct?” 

Hawkeye shook his head as he drained a glass of Scotch. “Medical ethics wouldn’t allow me, though for a half a sawbuck, I’ll review my medical ethics. Nice to see you, Columbo – you meeting anybody, or you want to join us?”
Private Columbo opened his mouth, then shut it. He was beginning to learn that in this off-kilter corner of the universe, you played along. “Naw, I just wanted to wet my whistle and think a little.” 

“Mr. Qwan,” Hawkeye called, holding his empty glass aloft. The Oriental man in the bizarrely out-of-place bartender’s jacket looked up. “Another one of these, and a turpentine julep for my friend the flatfoot?” 

Columbo held up a hand, glancing nervously at the lieutenant. “Oh, no, Captain. I think I’ll just have a Coca-Cola or somethin’.” 

“Private, please don’t stand on ceremony because of me,” Maubrey said soothingly. 

“Yes, sir; thanks,” the MP answered slowly. “But booze, ah, bothers my gut, so I think I’ll just stick to a pop.” 

Maubrey nodded agreeably, and the trio fell into a brief gully of silence. “So why are you in uniform, sir?” Columbo ventured. 

“I decided my recovery might be speedier if I got my mind back into a military state,” Maubrey explained. “Got tired of stumping around the camp like some old duffer in a convalescentg home. So, if I might ask, how is your investigation progressing?” 

“It’s progressing,” Columbo assured him, unconvincingly. “My main problem is, everybody who coulda killed Sgt. Shoop either wasn’t anywhere near him or couldn’a got over to him to kill him. Outside of the doctors and nurses, of course, and I can’t see them doin’ it. It’s a riddle, all right.” 

“You have my empathy, Columbo,” Maubrey said. “But I’m sure you’ll persevere.” 

“Absolutely,” Hawkeye said. “You interested in police work when this little soiree is over?” 

Columbo leaned back as the bartender set a Scotch before Capt. Pierce and a bottle in front of the private. “Gee, I hadn’t much thought about it. I do know a guy, swell guy, Sgt. Gilhooley. Walks the beat in my neighborhood, up near Chinatown, helped get me on the straight-and-narrow. When I caught the train for basic training, Sgt. Gilhooley, he said I needed any help when I got back, just ask. Never thought about being a copper, though. Hmm...” 

“Any brothers and sisters, Columbo?” Hawkeye prompted. 

“Oh, just the one sister, Captain. But have I got brothers – we coulda adopted DiMaggio, we’da had a major league team. Hey, you wanna see?” Columbo reached for his wallet. 

“Love to,” Pierce grinned, relieved for some reason Columbo couldn’t fathom. The doctor wrestled his own billfold from a back pocket. “C’mon, Lieutenant; give.” 

Maubrey smiled enignmatically for a moment, then extracted an obviously expensive wallet from his uniform. The trio passed their family portraits. 

“My, Columbo, you’re family is certainly, ah, productive,” Hawkeye nodded, riffling through a thick portfolio of Columbos.” 

“Idle hands, you know, sir,” Columbo beamed, misinterpreting the physician’ thrust. The private began to sort through Lt. Maubrey’s wallet: A distinguished, handsome older pair on a veranda Columbo took for Maubrey’s parents; several photos, a few years old, of a vaguely familiar blonde girl; Maubrey himself astride a polo pony, mallet held at bay; and Maubrey proudly displaying an infant, a curly-headed moppet who could have been Shirley Temple’s twin, rolling his tongue mischievously at the camera. 

“Your boy, Lieutenant?” Columbo inquired, tilting the wallet. 

“I never married, except to the U.S. Army, Columbo,” Maubrey replied calmly. “That’s my nephew, Schuyler. He’s about five now, I’d venture. And I would assume this is your father, Captain. Very intelligent eyes; genetics favor you, sir.” 

“Thank goodness,” Hawkeye said. “Our milkman was myopic.” 

Maubrey smiled, somewhat more coolly. “Well, gentlemen, I’ve enjoyed this little respite, but I’m afraid its taken it out of me. If you’ll excuse me.” 

Columbo returned the lieutenant’s wallet. Maubrey loosely saluted the pair and stumped out the officer’s club door. The MP looked quizzically at Pierce. 

“Did I miss something, Doc, or did it kinda cool off in here?” 

Hawkeye sipped his drink meditatively. “Yeah, you got that, too? I think my parting comment hit him wrong. Oh, well – Hawkeye Pierce, winning friends and influencing nurses. You see anything interesting, Columbo?”
“What do you mean, sir?”
Hawkeye gave the private the fish eye. “We’re going to have to take away your Ellery Queen decoder ring, Private. I guess if I’m going to play Dr. Watson to your Sherlock Holmes, I’m going to have to make owl noises or something. The family photos, Columbo. There’s no sign Shoop and Maubrey knew each other here, so I thought maybe you’d want to look for any connection stateside. You see anything hinky?” 

“Hinky, sir?” Columbo frowned. “Lemme think...” 

“Igor,” Hawkeye called across the room. The cadaverous Mess Hall server looked up from near the bar. “A little D-5, if you please.” 

Igor nodded, evaluated the distance to the big colorful box in the corner, and retrieved a straw broom from behind the bar. He reached with the tool and jabbed the jukebox twice. Within seconds, Sinatra’s bourbon-mellow tones filled the room. Igor replaced the broom and slouched back over his beer. 

“Conserving energy for the mashed potato crowd,” Hawkeye explained. “Well, Mr. Holmes?” 

“I dunno...I guess it is a little funny...” 

“What?” 

“Well, when I asked the lieutenant if he was married, he set me straight that the kid in the picture was his nephew, but he didn’t say the woman in the photos was his sister, which I’m pretty sure is who it was, cause of the resemblance to him. The lieutenant, that is.” 

“Don’t hurt yourself conjugating, Columbo. What’s that mean?” 

“What I mean is, you see a bunch of different pictures of a woman, and one of a guy with a baby, and you ask him if the kid’s his son. No, it’s not, he says; it’s his nephew. But I’d think that’d be just part of the answer. Cause if he’s like me, he’s gonna figure I think the woman in the pictures is his wife. But he didn’t say nothing about her.” 

Hawkeye looked blankly at Columbo. “You’re losing me. And besides, if the girl had been Mrs. Lieutenant Maubrey and the kid had been Little Lieutenant Maubrey, wouldn’t she have been in the photo with Maubrey and the baby?” 

“Bingo, sir,” Columbo said enthusiastically. “Would you say Lt. Maubrey is rea close to his family?” 

“I don’t know; I guess.” 

“Then I gotta guess the woman in the photos is his only sister. Cause otherwise, wouldn’t he have a picture of another one?” 

“Your logic is flawless, at least after another Scotch.” 

“So that would make the nephew his sister’s kid, right?” 

“OK...” 

“Well, isn’t that a kinda funny picture? Maubrey posing with his nephew, instead of his sister holding her own kid? I mean, isn’t that the way they’d do it normally?” 

Hawkeye slurped his drink. 

“And while we’re talkin’, why’s he have so many pictures of his sister? You know what it’s like? I got this Aunt Renata, her kid, my cousin Izzy, died in Italy the last war. Well, she’s got five other boys, but you visit her house, she’s got like 20, 30 pictures of Izzy plastered up all over the place. 

“One Christmas, I ask my cousin Frank, Aunt Renata’s youngest, ‘It bother you your mom’s got about 10 times more pictures of Izzy hangin’ around the house than you or your brothers?’ He says, ‘Nah. She’s still got us. Those pictures, they’re about all she’s got left of Izzy. He’s a smart kid, Frank, but this is my point: It’s almost like the lieutenant’s got himself some kinda shrine to his sister in that wallet of his. Like he’s gotta have as many snaps of her as he can to keep her up here.” Columbo tapped his forehead. 

Hawkeye suddenly clapped his glass onto the table, with a look of epiphany. “And she didn’t pose with the baby because--” 

“She wasn’t around to pose with the baby,” Columbo supplied, an abrupt glimmer of intelligence appearing in his eye. 

Capt. Pierce’s brow wrinkled. “But how’s that apply to Sgt. Shoop?” 

The glimmer vanished. “I don’t got the slightest idea, Captain.” 

“Two more drinks, Quan,” Hawkeye called out. “You got any more requests before Igor gets too loaded to handle a broom?” 

Private Columbo glanced over at the gloomy enlisted man, then at the broom behind the bar. He sat transfixed for a moment, then slapped the makeshift table. 

Hawkeye jumped. “What?” 

The MP rubbed his chin. “I dunno. I think I got an inspiration. Either that or the lamb didn’t sit too well on my gut.” 

** 

The late afternoon Pre-Op was peaceful except for a few snores and an occasional moan or unconscious cry from a soldier reliving a battlefield experience. Nurse Kelly was on watch; a small, mustached man was in consultation with the amputee Hawkeye and Houlihan had been so concerned about. Maubrey was asleep in his cot. Major Winchester was moving from bed to bed, checking stats and dosages. 

“Say, Doc,” Columbo called quietly. The major wheeled about. 

“Ah, our young sleuth,” Winchester said. “And how might I be of service to you this day?” 

“You’re a rich guy, right?” 

The major’s brow rose microscopically. “A Winchester does not customarily flaunt affluence or breeding. But, yes.” 

“You know anything about polo?” the private inquired. “That’s the one with the horses and the clubs, right?” 

“Polo,” Winchester recited. “The melding of man and equine in civilized competition. And the implements of the sport are referred to as mallets. Are you considering trading in your stickball paraphernalia for polo togs, heh heh?” 

Columbo blanched. “Oh, geez, no, sir. My pop took me for a pony ride one time for my seventh birthday, and I almost fell on my head. I think that horse could tell I was afraid of him. No, sir; I was wondering about what kinda guy plays polo. I mean, what kinda shape do you have to be in?” 

“Well,” Winchester considered. “Strength is not necessarily a prerequisite, though a solid forearm certainly would be an asset. No, coordination and precision are the keys, I believe – being able to pinpoint one’s shots and guide the ball unerringly to one’s teammates.” 

“So what you’re saying is, a guy who can handle the club – ah, mallet – real good.” 

“Really well,” Winchester smiled tightly. 

“Yeah. Hey, thanks, Doc.” 

“My pleasure, Private.” The physician moved on to the next cot. 

Columbo bee-lined to the nurse’s desk. The plump Kelly looked up pleasantly. 

“Excuse me, Nurse,” he began. “You remember Sgt. Shoop, the guy who died a while ago?” 

The nurse’s eyes flashed. “Are you the detective? The guy Capt. Pierce called to solve the murder?” 

Columbo nearly blushed. “I dunno if I’d call me a detective, but I am looking into it.” 

“I love mysteries,” Kelly breathed. “You ever read Ellery Queen? Agatha Christie?” 

“I like The Flash and Batman,” Columbo offered. “What I was wondering was, do you know who was in the cot next to Lt. Maubrey the night Shoop died?” 

“You mean, who was next to Shoop? That was Private Henderson, the poor guy.” 

“No, I mean, who was next to Lt. Maubrey. I mean on the other side, not between Maubrey and Shoop.” 

Kelly frowned, then shuffled through some papers on the desk. “Oh, yeah, that was Col. Underhill. He had the gout – common brass disease, too much desk time and hooch.” 

“Gout’s like when your leg’s all swelled up, right?” Columbo asked. 

“Uh, yeah. Why?” 

Columbo appeared pleased, and surprised. “So he mighta had a crutch.” 

Kelly closed her eyes for a moment. “Yeah, he did.” 

“Do you think there’s any way you could tell me which crutch he was using?” 

“Underhill?” Kelly squeaked. “I don’t think so. I can show you the crutches, but I don’t think I could tell you which one he was using.” 

“Could you? Now?” 

The nurse slowly climbed to her feet, and led Columbo to supply closet near the scrub area. A row of crutches and canes hung on wooden pegs. The private began to pull the crutches from the wall, one by one, peering closely at the rubber foot of each. Nurse Kelly watched him with mingled curiosity and alarm. 

“Aha!” Columbo finally cried. “Nurse, look at the end of this crutch. What does that look like?” 

“Well,” she drawled, “it looks like threads caught in that crack there. And some white lint on the side there.” 

“Like maybe fibers and thread off a pillow?” 

Kelly shrugged. 

“Could you come with me for a minute?” he asked, tucking the crutch under his arm and moving rapidly back toward the post-op. Kelly trailed him, baffled. 

Columbo surveyed the post-op, nodded, and led the nurse to a group of three empty cots. He selected the first, and stretched out. “Don’t take this the wrong way, Nurse Kelly,” he cautioned, “but would you please lay down on the cot two beds away from me?” 

Winchester had wandered back over, and was looking on with bemusement. Kelly looked to the major for guidance, help, whatever. 

“Well, I assume he can do no damage to your virtue from two cots away, heh,” Winchester chortled. Kelly grimaced, and climbed into bed. 

“Now just lay on your back, and pretend you’re doped up,” Columbo murmured, wrestling the crutch for the optimum leverage. He twisted on his hip, legs immobile, and reached with the crutch toward Kelly. The nurse watched in somewhat horrified amazement as the private stretched and grunted. The rubber tip of the crutch came no closer than two feet from her snub nose. 

“No good,” Columbo finally sighed, pulling the crutch back and propping it against the center cot. He pulled into a sitting position and scratched his cheek. “Geez, I really thought I had it, there.” 

As Winchester clucked in sympathy, Columbo saw that Lt. Maubrey now was wide awake, leaning on an elbow and studying him intently from across the room. Was he mistaken, or did Columbo see a look of admiration on the officer’s face? 

“Not yet, though, huh?” Columbo mumbled. 

“Can I get up now?” Kelly implored. 

** 

“Will ya just look at that?” Columbo exclaimed, awestruck, as he laid his cards on the wooden “table” Hawkeye had erected in the swamp. “Two royal flushes in one night. Who’da believed it?” 

“Wow,” Klinger responded unenthusiastically. “My Uncle Tanoos was this lucky, at least until five Teamsters found the ace in his sock.” 

“Pool’s really my game,” the private continued, raking in his third pot with both hands. “My pop would take me down to the local pool hall almost every day growin’ up.” 

“And now you’re taking us to the cleaner’s – very generous,” Hawkeye said cheerfully. 

“They say luck is the residue of chance,” Dr. Sidney Freedman mused, smiling gently at the assembled throng, which this night also included Father Mulcahy; a pleasant but exhausted Californian named B.J., who’d just returned from delivering shots to the local orphans; and Winchester, who sat placidly, an incongruous snifter of brandy at his right elbow. “Perhaps this childhood exposure to games of chance has heightened Private Columbo’s propensity toward good fortune. What’s the theological view of luck, Father?” 

“That a little less talk and a lot more dealing would greatly heighten my propensity toward winning a little extra for the orphanage,” Mulcahy suggested. 

Columbo pulled a few bills off the top of his pile. “Gee, Father, you shoulda said so. I’d be happy to help the tykes.” 

“Bless you, Private,” Mulcahy beamed. 

“Hey, no fair invoking God during the game,” Hawkeye said, feigning indignity. Mulcahy shrugged, smiling beatifically. “So, Columbo, your theory didn’t pan out, huh?” 

“Nah, it was a kooky idea, anyway,” Columbo sighed. “I was just trying to come up with a way a man who couldn’t walk or get out of bed could smother Shoop. When I put together the lieutenant’s polo and arm wrestling, and Nurse Kelly told me the guy on the other side of Lt. Maubrey had had a crutch, I thought maybe I had it. But even with the lieutenant being a taller guy than me, he wouldn’t’ve been able to pull the pillow out from under Shoop’s head, work it over his face, and press hard enough to kill him.” 

“Still, however,” Winchester pondered. 

Hawkeye sighed. “Well, Charlock, give. Still what?” 

The major straightened for his recitation. “Well, it would seem that most of the ‘evidence’ would tend to back our good private’s theory. There was a residue of fibers on the cap of the crutch. The smudge on Sgt. Shoop’s pillow would appear to fit the pattern of the rubber crutch cap, and you told me you smelled rubber on the aforementioned pillowcase.” 

“Chah-les,” Hawkeye grinned. “You think Shoop was murdered now, don’t you?” 

“Stop. Gloating,” Winchester said frostily, through his flawless teeth. “I have merely taken a substantive body of forensic evidence and arrived through Aristophelean reasoning at a conclusion that happens to coincide with your little Hardy Boys’ hypothesis.” 

“I’m right,” Hawkeye sang gleefully. Then he sobered. “Except Columbo’s theory didn’t take.” 

Winchester offered up a Mona Lisa smirk. “Well.” 

“Charles, if the smug quotient in this tent gets any higher, we’re likely to float over the Sea of Japan,” Hawkeye warned. “Spill it.” 

“Well, it seems to me that Private Columbo, despite his demonstrated brilliance, has failed to view his theory within its accurate con-text. Pierce, wouldn’t you agree we’re currently enjoying a relatively slack period?” 

“Yeahh...” 

“But things were a smidgeon more hectic the night Sgt. Shoop expired, were they not?” 

“A smidgeon? We were standing room only—” Hawkeye stopped dead, and crinkles of realization formed at the corners of his eyes. “Charles, you crazy gumshoe, you. Columbo, we’d come off a heavy load of casualties the night of the murder, and we had to stack ‘em up in post-op. I’d guess we had about twice the normal number of cots in the post-op that night.” 

“All crammed together,” Columbo murmured. “So Lt. Maubrey coulda reached Sgt. Shoop over Private Henderson, easy, seein’ Henderson was knocked out just like Shoop. You’re a real brain, Major.” 

“But, of course.” 

The MP nodded vigorously, then settled back into deep contemplation. 

“Private?” Freedman inquired. 

Columbo looked up. “Well, what do they say in the movies? I got the means, with that crutch; I got the opportunity – Maubrey coulda killed Shoop without leavin’ his bed. But if I’m gonna get Lt. Maubrey dead to rights, at least in this man’s army, I’m gonna need a motive. I still haven’t worked out why he woulda killed a guy who I don’t think he ever met before.” 

Freedman crossed his arms and looked at the tent’s roof, as if beginning a therapy session. “All right. What do you know about Lt. Maubrey and Sgt. Shoop? Not one or the other, but both, together?” 

“Well, Cpl. O’Reilly said the sergeant tried talkin’ to the lieutenant, then steered clear of him like poison,” Columbo considered. “I’m guessin’ the sergeant said something that ticked him off. ‘Cept from what I hear, that never stopped Shoop before. So what would’ve?” 

“Fear?” Freedman asked. “What scares a man like Sgt. Shoop? A man who’s spent much of his adult life insulting his fellow man – and woman – and no doubt making enemies wherever he went.” 

Columbo looked straight at the psychiatrist. “Wherever he went,” the private stated, as if a light went on. 

“Yes?” Freedman urged. 

Columbo held up a hand while he collected his thoughts. “OK, Shoop was a car salesman back in the States. But Cpl. O’Reilly said he said something about nurses, um, uh, doing . . . something. . . like an Electrolux XXX. That’s a vacuum cleaner – my mom almost bought one. But it’s kinda screwy a guy like Shoop would know about different kinds of vacuum cleaners. Unless...” 

“Unless?” Freedman coaxed. 

** 

“Hello, ma’am,” Radar began, cheerfully, lowering his voice an octave. He still sounded like a kid. “This is Horace Walpoole of Good Houses and Gardenkeeping magazine. We’re taking a poll for our September issue about what kind of appliances and junk the lady of the house, being you, uses to keep her house. Clean, that is.” 

“Miz Maubrey ain’t in,” a husky-voiced woman, who sounded more masculine than O’Reilly. “I’m the maid. Y’all gonna have to call back later, honey.” 

“Oh, that’s OK,” Radar rallied quickly, transferring the field phone to his left hand and wiping the sweaty right on his pants leg. “They said we could talk to maids and like that.” 

“Well, I ‘spose I could help you out some, long as you don’t wanna know nothing about the Maubreys’ business or nothing personal.” 

“Thank you, ma’am.” Radar smiled at Hawkeye and Columbo, who waved encouragement. “Uh, our first question is, what kinda refrigerator do you use?” 

“That’d be a Coldspot. The mister bought it last April.” 

“What kinda stove?” 

“Lemme look.” The phone clunked onto a table. The woman was back in a second. “That’s a Roper stove, mister. You got any more questions, ‘cause I’m ready to listen to my radio stories.” 

“Uh, just one more, ma’am. What kind of vacuum cleaner do you use?” 

“Been pushin’ it around all day. A Windmaster.” 

“Okey-dokey,” Radar sang. “That oughtta do it. You’ll get a complimentary copy of Better Gardens and Housework for answering our survey.” 

“Mm-hmm,” the maid grunted, and the line went dead. 

“Windmaster,” the corporal proudly supplied. 

“Man of a Thousand High-Pitched voices,” Hawkeye informed Columbo. 

** 

Columbo found him walking the compound on his crutch. 

“Force of habit,” Lt. Maubrey explained, staring at the morning sun rising over the Korean hills. “Back home, I used to take a morning constitutional to clear my head for the day ahead, maybe step down to the neighborhood diner to share a story or a joke with a friend before closing time.” 

“You ever hear the one about the traveling salesman?” Columbo asked. 

Maubrey halted for a moment, glanced sidelong at the MP, and moved on. “At the risk of sounding pious, Private, I don’t particularly care for off-color humor,” he replied, cooler than usual. 

“Oh, it’s no joke, Lieutenant,” Columbo said. “This is a real story, about a real traveling salesman. His name was Shoop, and he sold vacuum cleaners. He’d been sellin’ stuff for years, probably had a girl in every port, probably girls who didn’t know their way around too good. 

“By the time he was peddling vacuum cleaners, he’d worked his way south to Georgia. Probably figured some of the rich folks would be easy pickings, them or their servants.” 

“I never met the man,” Maubrey stated. 

“No, I don’t guess you did. But I think your sister did, when he came around your house. Likely when your folks were out.”
The lieutenant halted again, turning toward Columbo. “You ought to be careful, Private.” 

The MP held his ground. “I don’t mean no offense, sir. I’m just tellin’ you what I think. And I think you killed Sgt. Shoop.” 

Maubrey’s face was unreadable. “Proceed.” 

“Back then, they only sold Windmasters door-to-door and by catalog – one of the guys at HQ found out. I found out your folks have a Windmaster vacuum cleaner. If I gotta, I bet I could prove Shoop was workin’ the Atlanta territory at about the time. . .at about the time your sister got in a family way. No disrespect intended, Lieutenant.” 

Maubrey leaned on his crutch, and offered the ghost of a smile, mirthless and weary. “You are a man to be reckoned with, Columbo. I, of course, was in Tokyo, helping the Occupation forces, and Dinah, my sister, was at a willful age. Once I realized who the sergeant was, I could tell he could be slick with the ladies. But would you be so kind as to explain how you reasoned out what happened to my Dinah?” 

Columbo waited for a few nurses to pass on their way to the showers. “I just picked up a little bit here and a little bit there. Little things Shoop said to folks. What I’m gonna say may bother you, Lieutenant. You sure you wanna hear it?” 

“Proceed,” Maubrey repeated. 

“Well, it was mainly two things. Major Winchester told me Shoop made some remark about a girl he’d met in Georgia who could... You sure, sir? OK. A girl who could ‘do things with her tongue you wouldn’t believe.’” 

Maubrey’s face remained neutral. 

“And that kinda hit me funny a little while ago, but I couldn’t think why. Then I remembered. Can I look at your wallet again, sir?” 

Maubrey looked curiously at the private, then surrendered his billfold. Columbo opened it and displayed the photo of his nephew. 

“First, I was thinkin’ how strange it was you had a picture of your sister – your only sister, right? – and one of you and your nephew, but not one of your sister with her boy, your nephew. Then I noticed something about your nephew.” 

Maubrey peered anew at his sister’s son on his lap, eyes twinkling as he rolled his tongue into a tube. 

“You know much about breeding, Lieutenant?” Columbo asked. “The reasons why you got blonde hair and I got black? That kinda thing? Well, lemme tell you, Captain Pierce knows all kinds of things about it. And you know what he told me? Some folks, they got a gene in ‘em that lets ‘em roll their tongue just like that baby is in that picture. You either can do it, or you can’t – it depends on your breeding. An’ that got me wonderin’ if maybe that’s what Shoop meant about the girl with the unusual tongue. 

“Then I wondered if maybe the reason why you had so many pictures of your sister in your wallet when you only got one of your folks and one of your nephew was because she wasn’t around no more. You’re from a rich family, sir. I know if one of the girls in my neighborhood was to have a baby without a husband, it’d be a disgrace. Her folks wouldn’t be able to look their neighbors in the eye, an’ she’d probably have to go off to Jersey or somethin’ for awhile. An’ we ain’t rich people. Is that what all that talk about carpetbaggers was about? Was Shoop the carpetbagger from the North?” 

Maubrey looked long at Columbo, and nodded. “After Shoop did. . .that. . . to my sister, he made a hasty departure. You see, she was only 17, and she’d had no experience in the world. My mama was old Atlanta society, and my daddy even older. In the South, there is no more important code than ‘Death before dishonor,’ except perhaps the code of silence. There was talk of sending Dinah away, but of course she was not made privy to that conversation, or any family communications. 

“Growing up, Dinah and I were inseparable. She was the baby, I the protector. But I had long since gone off to protect my country, and I heard what Dinah did to resolve her predicament, to absolve her shame, by a letter that arrived at my post two months after they’d buried her. Imagine my astonishment when this man showed up here, a world away, almost as if delivered to me by God himself. 

“And that’s what plagues me more than the horrible act I’ve committed. I allowed myself to fall so far from God’s grace that I could believe He had delivered another man’s life into my hands. The folly of giving your life over to war, I suppose.” 

Columbo stood silent for a moment. “And that’s why you kept giving me hints about carpetbaggers and tellin’ me how nobody else coulda killed Sgt. Shoop. You felt guilty about the murder, but you didn’t want me to know about your sister. You were protecting her again. You wanted to see if I’d fall to it myself.” 

“Taking the measure of the man,” Maubrey suggested somberly. “And I must say, Private Columbo, you have measured up admirably.” 

“Thanks, sir,” Columbo replied with equal gravity. “Now, I told you how I figured out about you and Sgt. Shoop. You wanna tell me how you knew Shoop was the guy who’d, um, well...” 

Maubrey reached into his trousers, and pulled out a strip of stiff paper. It was worn and discolored, and Columbo could tell the lieutenant had carried it with him through several battles. Captured in sepia tones, in four variations of the same pose, were a lovely, fresh-faced blonde girl and an older, roughly handsome man with a charming smile and eyes Columbo didn’t trust even in two dimensions. 

“They snuck out to the county fair carnival, I suspect,” Maubrey said. “He most probably forgot they’d taken this photo, or figured he’d be long gone soon enough. But Mama found this in Dinah’s bureau drawer. Didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but I’ve kept it with me all this time. When I ran across Shoop in the post-op, it was like some sort of supernatural event. He was badly wounded, but he just started joking with me anyway, ‘man’-to-man -- filthy stuff as he was accustomed to telling. I simply looked him in the eye and told him that his son offered his regards. You should have seen the expression on his face.” 

“Lieutenant,” Columbo began. 

And then the world exploded. 

** 

“Columbo!” a familiar voice barked. “You wanna haul your sorry ass up, ASAP?” 

Columbo looked up to see the grizzly, razor-nicked face of Sgt. Rowlston, scowling and breathing Korean hooch in his face. Rowlston’s face was a bluish-gray, and the sergeant bore a whiskey bottle under one arm and a foot – his foot, to be precise – under the other. He wore ill-washed olive fatigues and a Union Army cap. 

The private sat up to see a landscape of scorched earth and wedding cake Southern mansions, with Korean villagers, Confederate soldiers, and doctors in surgical garb busily transporting arms, legs, and heads to some unseen destination. 

“I said, haul ass, you guinea wop nancy,” Rowlston yelled. “I gotta get this foot sewed back on for the big game Sunday. Coach Kreutzer says I can’t play less I got two feet, and he sure ain’t gonna pull a little Mary Jane like you off the bench. That North Korean team’s sposed to be the top in the league, can suck like an Electrolux Model 500. Get movin’, soldier.” 

“I can’t, Sarge,” Columbo apologized, trying to move his legs. 

“Aw, hell, then.” Rowlston grasped the private’s left foot. “I’ll just take one a’yours. Always did like Eye-talian, anyway...” 

** 

Desperately, Columbo kicked out with his left leg, knocking Cpl. Klinger on his ass. The corporal got up, dusted off his chenille frock, and smiled down at the private. 

“Glad to see you got some life in you, pal,” Klinger greeted anxiously, “But Capt. Pierce says I gotta get your boots off so you can relax ‘til he looks at your skull.” 

“What happened?” Columbo sputtered, pulling the last few hours into focus. 

“Somebody don’t respect the ‘Quiet, Hospital Zone’ signs. Tossed a Russian grenade about 20 feet away from you and the lieutenant, threw you about 10 more. Lucky for you Maubrey hauled you inside.” 

Columbo bolted up. He was in Pre-Op, along with about half the camp, from the looks of it. A muffled explosion sounded outside. 

“How long was I out?” the private demanded. 

“Not more’n 20 minutes or so,” Klinger guessed. 

Columbo didn’t see Lt. Maubrey anywhere. Despite Klinger’s protests, he pushed up and began searching the faces around him. Hawkeye, attending to a scratched-up nurse, looked up disapprovingly. 

“Columbo, get back in bed!” Pierce shouted. “I don’t know what’s rattling around in your noggin yet.” 

“Maubrey,” the private gasped. “He confessed to killin’ Shoop, an’ now I can’t find him.” 

Hawkeye’s face softened. “Columbo. Lankowitz – remember the guy who lost his leg? – disappeared after the bombing started. I think maybe he wants to make a date with a grenade. Maubrey went out to find him.” 

“OK, I’ll be back,” Columbo said, brushing Pierce’s hand aside. 

“Good man,” said Col. Flagg, who’d been standing behind Hawkeye. 

“Ah,” the doctor sighed. “Irving Berlin and his Bamboo Shoot Orchestra.” 

“Stand aside, Ivan,” Flagg growled, pulling an alarmingly large pistol from his belt. “The kid and I are gonna go gook hunting, then round up Comrade Kee, the ringleader.” 

“Uh, the ringleader’s in the back there, wrapping bandages,” Pierce informed him. “I’m sure Columbo can get killed without you.” 

“Yeah,” Columbo agreed. “I’ll be fine, sir.” 

Flagg nodded. “That’s a boy. I’ll watch Kee.” He swiftly moved through the surgery doors. 

“And I’ll watch for the Wacky Wagon,” Hawkeye murmured. “Look, I think we got things in hand here; I’ll go with you to see you don’t pass out in the latrine or something.” 

“Come on, then,” Columbo said with uncharacteristic authority. 

Outside, they spotted the shattered remains of said latrine. Another explosion caused the pair to jump. 

“Gee, and they said Korea was boring in the fall,” Hawkeye commented. “Look, I don’t think Maubrey’s gonna grab a bus out of town. I’m more worried about Lankowitz.” 

“Shh.” Columbo held up a hand. He heard voices, he thought behind the Mess Tent. He grabbed Hawkeye’s sleeve, and they moved around the tent. 

Lt. Maubrey was on his knees, holding a pale and fallen Lankowitz. The amputee had reopened his sutures, and blood seeped into the dirt around himself and his rescuer. 

“Lemme go,” Lankowitz wailed weakly and futily. A pair of crutches lie feet away from Maubrey. “I got 43 bucks in my pack. It’s yours if you’ll just leave me here. Please.” 

Hawkeye moved to the patient, nudged a shoulder under his, and pulled him upright. “We’ll talk about your finances later, son. Coming, boys?” 

“In a minute,” Maubrey said. Columbo turned abruptly toward him. 

“Don’t dilly-dally,” Hawkeye warned. “We’ll be out of punch and plasma pretty soon.” 

Columbo watched Pierce haul Lankowitz back to the Pre-Op. “C’mon, Lieutenant. I’d like you to come with me. I bet if we talk to the brass, tell ‘em what Shoop did to your sister, they’d take it easy on you.” 

Lt. Maubrey smiled oddly. “I’m not one to pull rank, Private Columbo, but I don’t think so. Southern creed and all.” 

The MP felt his heart quicken, remembering something Maubrey had said earlier. “You’re under arrest, sir.” 

Maubrey nodded, then began to walk away. Columbo pulled his side-arm. 

And nearly blew his foot off as an ovoid metal object plopped, bounced twice, and rolled to a stop before him. 

Maubrey charged, butting Columbo in the diaphragm and knocking him once again off his feet. The lieutenant grabbed the grenade and began to sprint away from Columbo, toward the outskirts of the camp. 

“Hey,” Columbo wheezed, and he gave chase. He aimed his gun at the retreating lieutenant, who was a half-football field away. “Halt! Throw it away, sir!” 

Maubrey turned, regarded the grenade in his hand. 

“Get rid of it!” Columbo screamed. 

The lieutenant pulled himself to attention, and his right hand snapped into a sharp salute, directed at Columbo. The MP suddenly stiffened, and reluctantly but resolutely returned the salute. 

** 

When Hawkeye reached the point where he’d heard the last explosion, he found Columbo attempting to crawl to his feet, dusting off his jacket and pants. The doctor followed the line of the private’s vision to a newly blasted excavation and the twisted body just beyond... 

** 

“We decided to just let sleeping dogs lie,” Lt. Columbo told Thomas Jefferson Pierce, who had abandoned John Doe to listen rapt to the policeman’s tale. “Your grandpa and I figured Lt. Maubrey’s folks had been through enough, losing one kid already. They didn’t need to know their son had killed the man who’d killed her. Plus, Maubrey had saved my life, so I figured I owed him. It went down as a heroic accident. 

“It turned out to be just one guy who’d attacked the hospital, some half-crazy North Korean soldier, 16 or so. Most of his squad had got killed in a raid, and he’d wandered around with a bag of grenades for weeks ‘til he found anything looked American. One of our snipers got him, but Hawkeye patched him up. When he woke up, the kid kept askin’ us to be sure and let his people know after he’d been executed. Death before dishonor.” Columbo shook his head. 

Dr. Pierce took a deep breath, and hoisted himself from his chair. “You know, Lieutenant, I’m too young to even have been in the Persian Gulf, so I don’t know too much about military stuff. But I’ve worked a few cases with the Bomb Squad, and it seems to me like there was an awful long delay between that grenade landing and Lt. Maubrey getting blown to kingdom come. Columbo?” 

The homicide lieutenant pursed his lips as he stared at the young medical examiner. Finally, he nodded, and rooted through his raincoat. 

“Your grandpa woulda been proud of you,” Columbo chuckled, finding what he’d sought. He handed the object to Tom Pierce. “I was never one of those guys who collected war souvenirs. Nothing much about the war I wanted to keep. But I guess this one was special, and it was my first case, even if only your grandpa and now you knows I solved it. 

“We found that thing a few yards from where Lt. Maubrey was killed, not up where the North Korean was holed up, where it shoulda been. See, the kid was so tired and hungry and desperate, he was starting to get sloppy. When I say Lt. Maubrey saved my life that day, I meant the first time, when I wound up in the hospital. I wasn’t really in danger when that grenade dropped at my feet. The lieutenant saw his opportunity, and stuck to his creed. Death before dishonor.” 

And Columbo slipped the grenade pin back into his pocket.