The Val & Kit Mystery Series

Monday, May 1, 2017

Many Happy Returns

May 1974

There was a light tapping on my bedroom door, followed by, “Valerie, honey? It’s Dad.”

“What do you want now?” I replied in a very serious tone.

“I have just one more question, Ma’am. Where were you at midnight?”

“Why, Detective Columbo, I spent the evening at home playing gin rummy with Clint Eastwood.”

“Can anyone confirm this, Miss Caldwell?”

“Apart from Clint, you could ask David Cassidy. He was there all night making Harvey Wallbangers.”

I heard my father chuckle and take an imaginary puff of his invisible Columbo cigar. “I’m coming in, Miss Caldwell; I got a warrant here.” When the door opened, he stood there in his tartan robe, belted at the waist over wrinkled pajamas.

I patted the empty spot at the end of my bed. “Come sit here, Detective.”

“You’re getting pretty good at this, Valerie. I’m gonna have a heck of a time busting your alibi.”

My father’s favorite TV show was Columbo, and one of my favorite pastimes was watching it with him. We’d invented a game where he would arbitrarily turn into the famous detective and I was challenged to come up with an unbreakable alibi.

“So, what are you doing here?” he asked, going back to daddy mode. “Counting your money?”

My pink ceramic pig was turned upside down on my bed, the plug in its plastic tummy removed, the contents laid out on my bedspread. “Yep. I have nearly six dollars.”

“And what are you planning to do with all this money?”

“Getting Mom a gift for Mother’s Day.”

He smiled sweetly and leaned across the bed to pinch my cheek. “You’re a good girl, Valerie.”

“So, help me; what should I get her?”

“Hmm.” He scratched the top of his head. “Doesn’t she loves hummingbirds? You could get a ceramic—”

“She hates hummingbirds, Daddy. She calls them flying insects, and they give her a headache.”

“Okay, perfume. How about that?”

“I bought her the deluxe supersize bottle of Jean Naté for Christmas, and it’s still half-full.”

“Okay, I got it. A book. Doesn’t your mother love to read?”

Love to read? Dad, have you even met Mom? The only thing she ever looks at is Reader’s Digest.”

He nodded in agreement as he stood and reached into the pocket of his robe. “Here, take this.”

“Dad! Ten dollars! I can’t—”

“Of course you can. Get her something really nice. She’ll love whatever you pick.”

“Thanks, Daddy. I’ll bring you change. Kit and I are going shopping today, so I don’t suppose you could—”

“Drive you? It would be an honor.”


My dad waited in the parking garage, reading his newspaper, while Kit and I scooted into Saks Fifth Avenue. With her father’s credit card, my pal headed straight to the counter that sold evening purses. After a very brief glance at the display shielded behind glass, she pointed to one item. “That one,” she said, sounding way more grown-up than her thirteen years.

The saleslady seemed amused as she gently took the purse, covered in gold beads, from its resting place. “This one is three hundred ninety-nine dollars,” she said, probably expecting us to faint. She was returning the bag to its perch when Kit held up a hand to stop her.

“I’ll take it.” She slid her dad’s card across the counter. “My father has an account here, and I’m a signee.”

“Oh.” The woman’s expression changed. “Then let me gift wrap it for you.”

“Your mom will love that; it’s so gorgeous,” I whispered to Kit, as the saleslady vanished.

“Not really. She’s got several that are very similar. What she wants is to be able to return it for cash.”

“Can she do that?”

“She does it all the time.”

How sad, I thought. At least my mom had never returned a gift from me.

Next, my dad drove us to Marshalls. My choice. Once there, I spent seven dollars on a polyester shawl. It was embroidered with birds and edged with a sixteen-inch gold fringe. So glamorous. Then later, after we had dropped Kit off at her house, Dad asked to see my purchase.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. “You are very clever. You know, a scarf like that—”

Shawl, Detective; it’s not a scarf.”

“Excuse me, ma’am,” Daddy/Columbo apologized. “But an item just like that was reported stolen by Charo, along with several million dollars’ worth of jewelry.”

“Really, Detective? That’s strange, because Goldie Hawn herself gave this to me for my birthday.”


On Mother’s Day, my little family gathered in the kitchen. My dad was making breakfast, and my mom, who was wearing her pink chenille robe with matching pink curlers in her hair, was seated at the table. My shawl was wrapped and ready to go, but before I could present it, my sixteen-year-old brother, Buddy, breezed in looking way too pleased with himself. He handed Mom a package wrapped in Christmas paper.

“This wrapping is so adorable, Buddy.” She obviously didn’t notice it was about five months too late for Santa and his crew to be sleighing across rooftops. The gift inside was a book, Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls. “Oh, Buddy!” she said, as if he’d given her The Gutenberg Bible. “This is marvelous. I’ve been eyeing it since it came out.”

Really, Mom, you’ve been eyeing it for EIGHT years?

She opened the book, but before she could actually begin reading, I handed her my package, wrapped in pink-and-white polka-dot paper and tied with a red ribbon.

“Oh my, what is this?” She pulled out the shawl, and I could clearly see that some of the painted pink things flying around the fabric were hummingbirds. The fringe I had thought so striking now looked like the tangled mane of a wild horse.

“Try it on,” my dad said from the stove.

Reluctantly, she slowly wrapped it over the shoulders of her chenille robe and then ran her fingers through the long fringe. I figured she couldn’t wait to chop it off.

“Do you like it?” I asked.

“It’s very . . . unusual,” she said. Then her face brightened as an idea occurred to her. “I’ll save it to wear to a Quinceañera.”

What had I been thinking? The shawl that had looked so exotic in the store now seemed farcical. And the chances that she’d be invited to a Quinceañera were about as remote as her attending a bullfight in Spain. But I kissed her on the cheek anyway and tried to hide my disappointment over my tacky gift. Quickly, I moved to the safety of my dad at the stove, where he was frying bacon.

“I knew she’d love it,” he said, chuckling and quietly adding, “Señorita! Then he pinched my cheek as we both started to laugh. “Now, about that triple homicide at the tennis courts.”

“I already told you, Detective, at the time of the murders I was out with Harrison Ford walking his dog.”

“Hmm.” He slowly nodded his head. “Yes, you did. But just one more question: what’s the dog’s name?”

“Oh, he doesn’t really have a name. Harrison just calls him Dog.”


Much later, after Mom had gone to bed and Dad and Buddy were watching baseball down in the den, I tiptoed past her bedroom to reach my own.

“Valerie, is that you?” I heard her soft words.

I stopped at my bedroom and began walking backwards to reach hers. “Do want something?” I whispered through the door.

“Come in; I want to tell you something.”

I opened the door halfway. She was sitting up in bed. The Latin shawl was draped around her shoulders, and next to the soft light of her bedside lamp, and without her curlers, she looked very pretty.

“I just wanted to thank you again for this.” She ran her fingers through the mangled fringe.

“Really, Mom? Because in the store it looked so much more—”

“Valerie, I love it.” I noticed her look down to her lap, where Buddy’s book was lying open. “Have you read this book?” she asked.

“No, but maybe I’ll borrow it once you’re finished.”

“Oh no, dear. It’s only for grown-ups.”

I nodded as if she was absolutely right, although I had already read it. I’d borrowed it from Kit, who stole it from her mother. “Okay,” I said casually. “Well, good night. Love you, and I hope you had a nice day.”

She closed the book gently. “Valerie, I had a wonderful day. You and your brother spoiled me. I’m the luckiest woman in the world to have such great children.”

I blew the flamenco dancer a kiss and gently pulled the door shut.

Then I heard her voice again. “Valerie, one more thing. I hope you kept the receipt.”