mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Six

Glen’s door was open when I got home, leading me to deduce that he was still out. A frigid breeze blew into the hallway from his open window. I didn’t know if Mrs. Sperling was up or not. No lights were on, but that didn’t mean anything. I knew she was home. She’d left a note on the bulletin board between Glen’s and my rooms informing us that there was no need to be up early as she had no plans and was absolutely not going to receive.

I took advantage of it and slept until noon. I beat Glen to the bathroom. He was still in there when the phone rang. It was my mother wanting to know if I was coming to Sunday dinner the next day. I told her I’d call her back after I’d talked to Mrs. Sperling.

I decided to try the kitchen first. At bare minimum, I’d get something to eat. Mrs. Osgood was there, putting together a tray.

“Mrs. Sperling is not feeling good today,” she explained. “Will you bring this up for her?”

“Sure. Can I eat first?”

“You should.”

“I’ll get it. I thought I saw some cereal in the cupboard.”

I had. Glen came in as I got out the milk.

“She’s having one of her days,” he grumbled.

“Mrs. Sperling?” I asked.

“Yes.” Glen morosely removed a bowl from the cabinet. “She has two kinds. A kind where she just doesn’t feel like getting out of bed. Those are okay. Then she has sick days. Those are totally awful. I gotta be around to carry trays, but she doesn’t get many, so I’m stuck waiting all day.”

“You could do homework,” volunteered Mrs. Osgood.

“I should, but it’s totally boring.”

“You’re in school?” I asked.

“Yeah. U.C.L.A.”

“No kidding. My best friend’s fiance is a resident at the medical center there. What’s your major?”

“Psych.”

“The tray is ready,” Mrs. Osgood broke in.

“I’ll take it up,” I said. “I’ve got to talk to Mrs. Sperling anyway. I haven’t got anything better to do, so if you want to ditch, Glen, why don’t you?”

He grinned. “You don’t mind? Awesome.”

I put my bowl in the sink and picked up the tray. Mrs. Sperling’s room was dark. Light filtered through the sheer curtains on the long window leaving a square patch on the king-sized bed. Eleanor lay curled up at the bed’s foot. She looked as dismal as her mistress.

Mrs. Sperling was on her back in the middle of the bed with an ice pack covering her eyes.

“Mm?” she softly moaned as I entered.

“It’s me, Donna. Mrs. Osgood sent me up with this tray.”

“Put it on the bedside table.”

“There’s tea here and some toast.” I set the tray down where she’d asked. “You wouldn’t happen to be suffering from a migraine, would you?”

She winced. “You would have to guess that. I hate admitting it, but I am. I’m not the fuzzy slipper type.”

“Actually, highly creative and intelligent women are more likely to get them.”

“Where did you read that?”

“I was told by my doctor when I had one. It’s not an experience I’d like to repeat.”

“I wouldn’t wish it on Alisa Montrose, even though she is probably behind this one.”

“Was she the lady last night who was so surprised that you could get from one end of a room to the other without killing yourself?”

“Yes.”

“May her face fall even faster this time. I felt like punching her.”

“I abhor violence. If it wouldn’t be so unfair to the poor man, I’d wish arthritis on her plastic surgeon.” She sighed loudly. “It’s so aggravating, Donna. Why can’t people understand I can get along, in many ways, just as well as they can?”

“I don’t know. It seems pretty amazing to me that you do, especially when I think of how much I use my sight. We used to do trust walks in my acting classes. We closed our eyes and just walked, trusting that our classmates would catch us before we bumped into anything. It was the scariest feeling. And yet you do it all the time. It’s hard for me to understand how.”

“It must be as hard for you to imagine being blind as it is for me to imagine seeing. There’s no sense in it, though. Why do some people insist on treating me like glass when the evidence of my capabilities is thrown in their faces?”

“They’re blind to it?”

That got a chuckle out of her. “Certainly in the case of Alisa Montrose. My heavens, that woman is disgusting. She yells at me as if I were deaf, holds me up as if I were a cripple, then gushes on incessantly about what a miracle I’ve achieved in spite of my tragic affliction. I ask you, is there anything tragic about me?”

“Well, you’re a widow.”

“That isn’t tragic. Heartbreaking, but not tragic. If anything, John’s death was rather mundane.”

“It was?”

“Yes. He had your basic heart attack. It all happened almost twenty years ago, and he died almost instantly. He understood, and he was a cinematographer, one of the best. His eyes were his living, and yet he rarely noticed my lack of sight.”

“You still miss him.”

“A husband is a hard thing to lose. Still, I’m a strong person. There is a great deal of truth in time’s healing powers. Sometimes I think that’s Alisa’s whole problem. I’ve had it fairly easy, but that woman has never known a moment’s adversity. The worse trauma she’s suffered is a broken fingernail. Poor thing, she deserves pity. Of the two of us, I’d say she’s the handicapped one. A lack of basic intelligence is far more devastating, don’t you think?”

“To those who have to put up with her, it is. She probably doesn’t know the difference.”

“She doesn’t.” Mrs. Sperling suddenly smiled. “It’s terrible how that woman brings out my worse instincts. I was unforgivably rude to her last night, and worse yet, I thoroughly enjoyed it.”

“What happened?”

“She was displaying her Niedeman serigraph, the HN6. She was bragging about it, when I, with tremendous pleasure, informed her that it was a fake. She was aghast. How could I possibly know? I couldn’t see it. I pointed out that she could, and it hadn’t stopped her from being fooled. Of course, she wouldn’t believe me, so I told her about the smell, just to prove I knew what I was talking about. I doubt she believed me even after that, but Norma Delgado said she heard Alisa mention something about an appraisal later.”

“Was it a fake?”

“Certainly. Do you think I would risk her calling my bluff? Furthermore, she got it from Mr. Stein.”

“So maybe he is counterfeiting.”

“Possibly. I also ran into the son of some old friends of my family. Phillip has been collecting Niedemans since before the artist’s death. He, naturally, has all of the commemoratives. I overheard his comment that he was very unlikely to end up in Alisa’s predicament, even though he’d recently made a purchase. I found it interesting that he was so certain of his serigraph’s authenticity. So later I managed to obtain an invitation to look at his sculptures on Monday afternoon.”

“Okay. Is there anything planned for tomorrow?”

“You may have the day off after church. Do you belong to any?”

“Not really.”

“Fine. You will accompany me then. I am a practicing Catholic, and I hold the Church’s view that a little religion once a week is essential for personal growth, even if that is a minimum. Unless you have some serious objections.”

“No. I guess not. I’m Catholic, too, but I haven’t been to church in a while.”

“A providential meeting, then. We’ll be going to nine o’clock mass, after that you’ll be free.”

“Fine. My mom wants me to go home for dinner. My brother and his fiancee are coming.”

“That should be pleasant. Did you find anything out from Mr. Lansky?”

“Oh boy, did I.” I told her the whole story. She tsk’d over the fight.

“I shouldn’t have let you go. I was afraid there might be trouble. Was Mr. Lansky hurt?”

“Mickey didn’t think so. Lansky was pretty looped, too.”

“It’s fortunate that your friend was there, although I deplore the necessity.”

I shrugged. “Mickey probably enjoyed it. That’s one of the reasons we never made it as a couple. I can’t handle fighting, and Mickey loves it. He was always trying to get some debate going with me. I hated it, and he hated it when I refused to argue back.”

“All for the better then. Mr. Lansky wanted to know what I had on him?”

“Yeah. I never told him who I worked for. I figured he overheard me talking about you to my friends and realized I was pumping him and got scared. But why?”

“That is the question. Another piece for the puzzle and precious few of them are fitting with any other.”

“Did you get to talk with Ramona Bistler?”

“Only long enough to secure an invitation to her home sometime this week. What you’ve just told me shall make it a very interesting visit indeed.” She paused. “You say this Mickey is just a friend of yours.”

“Alright,” I groaned. “He was more. It just didn’t work, and it never will.”

“Indeed, and all the more painful because you two truly care for each other.” She yawned.

“I guess I ought to take off. Feeling any better?”

“Some. I expect I shall have to just sleep it off. Would you please take Eleanor on a walk for me?”

“Sure. Eleanor, come.”

Eleanor got up slowly, looked back at her mistress, then padded out of the room at my side.

My whole family showed up on Sunday. It made for quite a crowd around the table, especially since my brother’s fiancee, Elise, and my brother-in-law, Ernie, were there also. My other sister, Denise, and I were the only singles left, something Peter made a point of rubbing in. He also made a couple cracks about the odds against Debbie’s marriage working out. Ernie just laughed and said he was used to beating the odds. Debbie laughed also, but I could tell she wanted to slug Peter one. Elise did.

“Hey!” Peter yelped.

“You quit being so snotty,” reprimanded Elise.

“That’s right, Elise,” I cheered. “Keep him in line.”

“Thanks, Donna.” Peter glared at me.

“Children,” sighed my father.

“Let’s not get into an argument,” Mom cut in.

“So how’s the drug-making business?” Debbie asked.

Peter’s a chemist for a pharmaceutical company in Pasadena.

“Good,” replied Peter, ignoring Debbie’s cut. None of us would ever let Peter live down that he was into drugs for a living. “I’m working.” He looked right at me.

“So am I,” I said with a slight grin.

“I heard. Driving a car. Some great career that is.”

“I think it’s a perfectly good one,” said Denise. “It’s honest work, for one thing.”

“And I can still work on my acting career,” I added.

“Still thinking about that, huh?” Dad asked with a worried frown.

Mom sighed. “I hope you’re not endangering your job.”

“Not in the least.” I squirmed under Peter’s grin. “Mrs. Sperling says it’s perfectly alright. In fact, she’s encouraging it.”

“That is terrific,” said Denise. “I wish I had a boss like that.”

“It sure is nice of her, isn’t it, Peter?” Elise looked at him. Peter didn’t answer.

“Mom says you’re living in Beverly Hills,” said Debbie, still trying to get Peter back.

“Yeah. It’s a real nice house. I’ve got my own room, but I do have to share a bathroom with the houseboy. He is a slob, too. He’s into collecting Niedemans.”

“Really? I just got one this morning, the HN6,” said Peter.

“No kidding. Where?” I asked.

“A little place down in Hollywood. This lady owns it. She always sells them cheap.”

“You got it this morning? That’s weird.”

“I know. I got a hell of a deal. I get all my Niedemans there. I’m on the broad’s waiting list. I’ve been looking for HN6 for a while. Then yesterday she called me and said she’d found a couple extra and did I still want one. So I hot-footed it out there this morning, and grabbed it.”

“Peter is such a sexist,” sighed Elise. “Have you seen those prints?”

“Just the one,” I said. “And you’re right.”

“I’ve seen a whole bunch,” said Debbie. “Peter, your taste is despicable.”

“That’s not fair,” Denise said. “Niedeman’s women are idealized, the embodiment of the perfect woman. I think they’re fascinating.” Denise is an art major.

Peter laughed. “I’m just buying them for the investment value, and, Elise, you know it. The guy is still hot and the prices are going up.”

“Only because he’s dead,” said Debbie.

Denise shook her head. “Not necessarily. He was very popular before he died.”

“Either way,” I snickered. “Peter, are you sure you haven’t got a counterfeit?”

“Yeah, I’m sure,” Peter retorted.

“I might be able to tell,” said Denise.

“So can I,” I said, smugly.

“Since when are you such an expert?” said Peter.

“Since Glen Weir got stuck with a fake.”

“Who’s he?”

“Mrs. Sperling’s houseboy. She spotted it and told me how.”

“Well, most knock-offs of Niedemans are easy to tell because they’re such bad quality,” Denise said.

“These are really good ones, Denise.” I smiled. “Most people can’t see the difference.”

“Well, my supplier could,” bragged Peter. “She may be pretty flakey, but she knows her art.”

“Flakey?” I asked. “How?”

Peter shrugged. “She’s old, and she dresses like she’s from the sixties, and she’s a space cadet, keeps talking about her past lives.”

“Dolores Carmine!” I almost jumped.

“You know her?” Peter was as shocked as I was.

“I’ve met her. Mrs. Sperling knows her. We were checking out Glen’s fake.”

I have to admit I enjoyed the sick look that came over Peter’s face just then. As soon as we finished eating, he had Denise look over his print. She said it looked good. I sniffed it but couldn’t be sure.

At about two thirty Peter couldn’t take it anymore and talked me into following him to Hollywood in my car and going to see Dolores Carmine. It wasn’t too hard. I wanted to talk to Dolores, also. Fake or real, the source of that print could be very important. I could just see Mrs. Sperling’s gratified smile.

Most of the stores on Dolores’ block were closed. But there was a light on in the gallery. I held Peter and Elise back.

“Peter, I’ve got some very specific questions to ask,” I said. “So will you please let me do the talking, and play along?”

“Why?” he asked.

“Just trust me.”

“Peter, can you please?” Elise asked.

“Alright.”

I led the way in. Nothing had changed in the musty old shop. Dolores shuffled in from the back, muttering obscenities. She smiled when she saw me.

“Hello, little bitch,” she said, grinning, then noticed Peter and Elise. “And you two shits are back.”

“They’re with me,” I said. “Mrs. Sperling wanted them to come. She asked me to ask you a few questions about the serigraph you sold them this morning. She’s kind of tied up right now, or she would’ve come herself.”

Dolores shrugged noncommittally. “What the fuck.”

“Where did you get it? Peter, here, told me you’d just got some others in.”

“Yeah. This young prick came by and sold them to me cheap.”

“What was his name?”

“Do I fucking look like I’d ask?”

“Do you remember what he looked like?”

“Tallish with dishwater hair.”

“Are the prints genuine?”

“Fuck, yes.”

“But how do you know if you don’t know the person who sold them to you?”

“He said he was a friend of Fred Gonzagos.”

“Those aren’t exactly the best credentials.”

“Fred’s not gonna stick me with shit. He knows better, and he’s a friend anyway.”

“Speaking of Fred, have you talked to him lately?”

“Not since early last week.”

“Any idea where he is?”

Dolores frowned. “Why? Is he missing?”

“Yep. Since Wednesday night. If you hear anything, will you let Mrs. Sperling know?”

“I suppose.” She stopped and looked at me. “I knew you. You were a queen, a Goth queen. Do you remember?”

“Uh, no.”

“I was a Roman decurion. You bore three sons for me.”

“Great. Listen, Mrs. Sperling’s waiting for me. I’ve gotta run. Thanks for the answers.”

I pushed Peter and Elise out of the shop ahead of me.

“She said I saved her from an evil wizard,” Peter chuckled.

“I never knew you were that noble,” I returned.

“He has his moments,” said Elise.

I remembered there was something she saw in him. My sisters and I could never quite figure out what. Peter can be charming and warm, but all my sisters and I usually saw was his more odious side. I have to be fair. We weren’t always very pleasant to him.

“Listen,” I said. “I don’t want to take Dolores’s word on that print.”

“Why not?” asked Peter.

“Because Fred Gonzagos happens to be a counterfeiter of fine artwork.”

“You know some pretty interesting people,” teased Elise.

“I don’t know him.” I sighed. I didn’t dare take a chance on letting it get back to my mom that I was mixed up in a murder. “Mrs. Sperling thinks that Glen’s fake was done by this Gonzagos guy. It’s a long story. Anyway, why don’t I take your print and have Mrs. Sperling check it out? I’ll get it back to you Monday, Tuesday at the latest, I promise.”

Peter grumbled. “Oh, alright. You got my work phone?”

“Sure. Or will Elise be at your apartment?”

“Of course,” Elise replied. “I don’t go into the store until five Monday and Tuesday.”

“Elise.” Peter shifted with the guilty warning.

I laughed. “Don’t tell me…”

“Yeah, she’s already there,” sighed Peter.

“Don’t tell our parents, please?” Elise begged. “My old roommate’s covering for me. My dad’d kill me if he knew.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t tell the folks,” I said. “But I’d sure like to tell Debbie.”

“Donna!” Peter groaned. “Come on. We’re already getting married.”

“Okay. But no more cracks about her and Ernie.”

Peter nodded reluctantly and went and got the print. It was rolled up in a large cardboard tube. I put it in my car and again talked the motor into running.

 

mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Five

I spent that afternoon reading. Around six I took the limo out to see if it needed gas. The tank was half full. I went ahead and filled it the rest of the way. At seven-thirty I got dressed and braided my hair. I didn’t have a uniform. Mrs. Sperling had told me I wouldn’t need one. I still felt I had to look something like the part. Besides, I had a plan.

“I do hope you will keep your ears open while we’re at the party,” Mrs. Sperling said on the way over. “Hired help is notorious for gossiping, and you never know when you might pick up an interesting tidbit.”

“No problem,” I answered. “Maybe we ought to set up some sort of signal in case I catch something hot.”

“I was about to suggest that. Your predecessor used to whistle.”

“I can do that. I’m something of a virtuoso.” I snickered with pride.

“Mozart, Symphony Number Forty, in G Minor.”

“Uh, which one’s that?”

Mrs. Sperling whistled from the first movement.

“That one.” I started whistling along.

After a few bars, Mrs. Sperling dropped out and just listened.

“I’m impressed,” she said.

“I have a weakness for Mozart,” I confessed.

“That’s a blessing. All Jimmy could manage was ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame.’  I enjoy Mozart, although Beethoven is my weakness.”

“Really? Do you just listen to classical music?”

“Heavens, no. Glen recently introduced me to Beyonce and JayZ. I also like Glen Miller, Ray Charles, the Beatles, Wagner, Lady Gaga, Beach Boys, some Van Halen, Benny Goodman…”

“And the list goes on. That’s quite a combination.”

“I have very eclectic tastes, and I make a point of keeping up on what’s current in the popular arts, as well as the more esoteric ones. My father always encouraged me to try new things. He was the only adult I knew who liked rock and roll when I was young.”

“I hope I stay that young. Looks like we’re here. Why don’t you stay put when I stop, and I’ll strut out all the hot stuff I learned in chauffeur school.”

Mrs. Sperling chuckled. “Most certainly. I love a good entrance.”

Eleanor was the first out of the car. Mrs. Sperling first tested for the curb with her foot, a movement so smooth I barely noticed it. As she stood, she stumbled and caught my shoulder.

“You okay?” I asked as she righted herself.

“Perfectly all right. Give me an hour, then you can go dancing with your friends.”

“Mrs. Sperling!” I groaned.

“Those were your tentative plans, weren’t they?”

“Yes. Another educated guess?”

“Confirmed by your clothing.” She ducked her head mischievously. “I’m sorry. That stumble was no accident. I was trying to confirm my guess. Spaghetti straps under your sweater and a full jersey skirt?”

“I wanted to look like a chauffeur and save time by not changing. You take as long as you want. My friends know I may not show.”

“I don’t want to take very long anyway. At this point, I’ll use any excuse.”

“Okay. You know your way up the drive?”

“Yes, thank you. Park the car around back, and don’t worry about whistling loudly. I’ve pretty sharp ears.”

“I can imagine.”

I parked where she indicated, next to one of several limos already gathered. Another chauffeur headed into the back of the house, so I followed him. There were about eight of us in the brightly lit kitchen dodging the caterers. I was the only female in the group. I guess the guys figured I was with the caterers because they left me to myself at first. Then one noticed that I wasn’t carrying trays and ambled over.

He was about my height, attractive, with dark hair and a roundish face aged slightly with a thick mustache. He wore a black vest over a white shirt with a black tie and black pants.

“Hi. You’re new,” he said with an obvious sort of grin.

I smiled politely anyway.

“I’m Steve Lansky,” he continued. “I drive for Ramona Bistler.”

“You do?” My interest picked up a lot. “No kidding.”

“No kidding. The boss told me I didn’t have to wait. She’ll probably be going home with some stud. I just stopped in to say hi to the guys. Looks like this is my lucky night.”

“Maybe.” I hesitated. On one hand, I wanted to keep his interest and possibly find something out about Ramona Bistler. On the other hand…

“Do you have to wait?” Lansky asked with a leer.

“Well, I… I might be able to get out of it. How do I get to the party?”

“Follow the trays, sweetheart. Tell you what, we’ll go dancing, then…” He smirked. “We’ll see what comes up.”

“I’ll go check.”

I hurried after a tray laden young woman down a hall to a packed living room. Standing in the doorway, I began the first movement of Symphony Number Forty. It took a minute, but Mrs. Sperling appeared at my side.

“You’re working very fast,” she said softly.

“So’s Bistler’s chauffeur. He wants me to go dancing with him.”

“Convenient.”

“It was his idea, I promise.”

“I’m sure it was. It sounds like a golden opportunity.”

“For information, yes.”

“Not to your liking?”

“He thinks he’s hot stuff.”

“Don’t sacrifice yourself, dear.”

“So I put up with the jerk for an hour or so. I’ll ditch him fast enough. In the meantime, I’ll pump him for what he knows.”

“It’s not part of your job description.”

“Maybe not, but I want to know.”

“Good for you. Please wait here a minute.”

She listened for a moment, then walked off across the room. I wondered where Eleanor was. The crowd shifted and I saw her tail listlessly thumping the floor from behind a sofa. Mrs. Sperling talked with Mrs. Delgado who nodded vigorously. Mrs. Sperling then threaded her way through the people back to me.

“The Delgados will give me a ride home,” she said. “Go to your interrogation with my blessing and ditch the clod the moment you get a chance. I don’t want you endangering yourself.”

“I won’t. Thanks.”

“Oh, Delilah!” oozed an older woman as she slid up. Her skin was tan and freshly lifted, with perfect make-up and hair. “Darling, how did you get over here?”

“I walked,” Mrs. Sperling answered with irritated politeness.

“But how?”

“I stood and put one foot in front of the other. The same way you do.”

“But there are so many people here. It must have been positively terrifying.”

“Not in the least.”

“Here, darling, let me help you back to the couch.”

“I’d really rather mingle, thank you.” Mrs. Sperling moved off into the swarm. If she bumped into anybody it was because the room was so crowded everyone was bumping into everyone else.

Taking a deep breath, I returned to my waiting swain. It took a little doing, but I convinced him that I really had to return the limo to Mrs. Sperling’s house. I also insisted on driving.

“I know a really hot spot in Westwood,” I said when we were finally on our way in my Altima.

“Great.”

“So how come your boss doesn’t care where you leave her car?”

“Cause she’s not going home in it. She don’t care about nothing but getting laid and getting a good settlement from her husband. Or she cared about the settlement. Looks like she’s getting the whole pile now.”

“Yeah. She sure is lucky.”

“She’d better watch her step. His family is supposed to contest the will. It’s like before she had to be careful so no one caught her sleeping around so she could get plenty of alimony. If she wants that money, she’s going to have to convince some judge she’s a grieving, faithful widow.”

“I hear she’s not.”

“You think your boss is weird. Mine is completely bananas. She’s taken up joy riding lately. In fact, night before last she took off again. I know cause the gas tank was full the next morning.”

“Full?”

“Yeah. She’s trying to cover it up now. The tank was half empty when I left it that day. The next morning it’s full. You try to tell me she didn’t run it down driving all over kingdom come, then filled it up so I wouldn’t think she’d been out.”

“Did you hear the car running at all?”

“Nah. I was out all night. I tell you, the broad is crazy. Why should I care if she goes driving?”

“Beats me,” I replied. He wouldn’t care, all right. But she might, if she needed an alibi, and a car running in a garage does empty the tank.

I parked in a parking structure about a block from the disco, after getting Lansky to cough up the parking fee. It was a rotten move, considering what I’d just gotten, and what my intentions were. But Lansky got on my nerves.

I walked quickly to the disco. Lansky kept up but was a little winded when we reached the door. I got my hand stamped and went in with Lansky right there.

The music was good and loud and drowned him out. The generous dance floor was across from the bar, and busy but not overcrowded. Tables were scattered about and mostly filled. Single men and women stood about watching and plotting. I had to complete a circuit of the room to find my friends.

There were five of them, including a couple I didn’t know very well. Their names were Jan and Lee. Tina Paulson, my best friend, stood when she saw me. Tina’s a black woman with a real exotic look that reminds me of Sade, only Tina’s prettier. With her was her fiance, Earl Cartwell, and a mutual friend, Mickey Dooley. Mickey has bright red hair and an outrageous personality. Besides dancing, Mickey is trying to break in as a stand-up comic. Tina’s a dancer, like me, and Earl is a doctor. He was a second-year resident at U.C.L.A. Earl looks like a basketball player with a tall-skinny figure and close-cropped hair.

I said hello all around as best I could and didn’t introduce Lansky. The set up was just perfect. Mickey and I are old buddies. Mickey threw his arm around me and flagged down the cocktail waitress.

“Bring my lady here a gin and tonic,” he yelled.

“Mickey, I’m driving!” I yelled back.

“So have some potato skins first. Here!” Mickey crammed a sour cream filled skin into my mouth. I laughed and tried not to get it all over my skirt. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Lansky sulkily pull up a chair and sit down. The next thing I knew, Mickey had pulled me onto the floor and we were off.

I met Mickey in a partnering class in college. We danced together the second day and it was like we’d always been partners. Something just clicks when Mickey and I dance together. It took a year of dating to find out our partnership was limited to the dance floor. But we’re still good friends, and we love to go dancing.

I hoped that when Lansky saw me and Mickey he’d throw in the towel. No such luck. I have to give the guy some credit for persistence. He even managed to get something of a conversation going with Earl.

Unfortunately, I had to share Mickey. Earl dances, but he’s such a klutz Tina goes crazy if she doesn’t get to dance with Mickey every so often. I decided to rest.

“So why don’t we blow this joint?” Lansky said in my ear.

I noticed he was drinking from my gin and tonic.

“Why?” I asked. “I’m having a blast.”

“What about something coming up?”

“The only thing coming up around here is the dance contest, and Mickey and I are going to win it.”

“But you came here with me.”

“Lansky, face it. This relationship is going nowhere. You’re an okay guy, but you’re not my type. It was a nice try. I appreciate it.”

Lansky grumbled something and left. Tina came up and dared me to go to the bathroom with her. Laughing, I went.

Tina wanted to know who Lansky was, so I told her as she washed her hands. That led to Mrs. Sperling’s generous arrangement with my career.

“You lucked out,” said Tina. She turned off the water.

“You’re telling me.”

“But this murder thing. Is she a cop?”

“Well, a private eye.”

Tina looked around for a towel. “No shit.”

“By all accounts, she’s pretty good at it.”

“Sounds kind of creepy to me.”

“Hey, the bucks are coming in, and I’m not living at home. I couldn’t ask for more.”

“Yes, you could.” She shook droplets of water all over me. “How about a leading role in a major motion picture starring also your best friend?”

“And how about an Oscar on top of that?”

“How about several million dollars?”

“How about numberless gorgeous men falling at my feet?”

“How about… Oh, damn! You topped me again.”

I pushed her out of the restroom.

Mickey and I won the dance contest, but I have to admit it was close. I knew the other couple were pros also. I’d seen them at auditions. I offered Mickey the prize money since I was working.

“No, my dear,” he replied. “We’ll split as usual. I just signed a contract with a lovely little club down in Hollywood. It’s called the Laugh Factory.”

“Mickey! That’s wonderful!” I screamed and threw my arms around him.

“It seems you’ve heard of it. I’ll only be there for three weeks. But the pay should feed me for somewhat longer. I’ve got some residuals, too, so I’m in the black for the time being.”

We all danced a while longer then mutually decided to call it a night. Earl and Tina left first with Jan and Lee. Mickey and I did one more song, then Mickey insisted on walking me back to my car.

It was definitely the element of surprise that knocked Mickey over. Neither of us could figure out quite what happened. We were almost to my car on the top floor of the parking structure when all of a sudden Mickey landed on his backside and my head was in a hammerlock. Lansky’s voice slurred as he cursed me.

“What’s Sperling got on me?” he growled. “Huh? What’s she got?”

He choked me so badly I couldn’t speak. Then I fell under two bodies, each scrambling for the other. Groaning, I managed to crawl out from under Lansky and Mickey.

They rolled together. Mickey showed on top and pulled back for a punch. It landed on Lansky’s jaw but didn’t do much. Lansky latched onto Mickey’s throat. Mickey broke the hold but fell backward. Lansky popped up. Mickey dodged just in time and staggered to his feet. So did Lansky.

The two men gasped as they glared at each other. Lansky danced in and swung first. It connected with Mickey’s eye. He faded back as Lansky came in again, this time to the stomach. Mickey got in a punch to Lansky’s nose. Lansky landed two more in Mickey’s stomach. Mickey stepped back and bumped into the retaining wall. Lansky grinned. His hands shot out and grabbed Mickey by the throat. Mickey grabbed on for dear life.

I watched in horror. At first, I couldn’t even yell, I was so scared. Lansky started pushing Mickey over the wall. That’s when I got angry. I ran over and pounded on Lansky’s back. Mickey broke his grasp and pounded on Lansky’s front. Lansky sagged to the ground.

“Oh no.” I started crying. “Is he still alive?”

Mickey checked him. “Oh, yeah. He’ll be sore in the morning but fine.”

“Are you okay?”

We staggered over to my car.

“I’m fine.” Mickey slid on his best Irish brogue. “I’m an Irishman. I love a good fight.”

“Mickey, that’s not funny. And you’re half Swedish. Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yes, I’m fine.” He held me by my shoulders and looked into my eyes. “I relaxed with the punches and he didn’t hurt me.”

“Okay.”

I sniffed again and Mickey kissed me. It was one of those wonderful, full kisses that had kept us dating for a year. We both sighed as we came apart.

“It’s mighty tempting,” Mickey said. “We wouldn’t last five minutes, but it’s mighty tempting.”

“You think..? No. No way. I don’t want to get messed up in that again. What are we going to do about him?”

“Leave him. You gonna come see me at the Laugh Factory?”

“With as many friends as I can drag down there.”

“Great. I’ll call you.”

“Or I’ll call you. As soon as the next dance contest comes up.”

“Right.” He took my keys and opened my car door for me. “There you are, my lady.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

He shut the door for me, then waited while I coaxed the Altima’s engine into starting. We waved as I drove off.

 

 

mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Four

I left the house the next morning with an apple and a piece of toast in hand. All was silent. I got back at ten-thirty and didn’t see anyone on the way to the shower. I was out and dressed by eleven. Wondering what to do, I wandered into the living room, then the kitchen.

Mrs. Sperling was enjoying either a late breakfast or an early lunch. Mrs. Osgood took something sweet and spicy smelling from the oven.

“Good morning, Donna,” said Mrs. Sperling without turning to me. “Did your class go well?”

“Pretty good. I’m a little stiff. I haven’t worked out in three days.”

“Do you like ginger snaps?” Mrs. Osgood asked, smiling.

“Sure,” I replied.

“Please sit down and join me,” said Mrs. Sperling. “You’re probably quite hungry.”

“Based on what clues?” I teased, sitting down.

“You were just strenuously exercising, which also means you ate very little before your class if anything at all.” With only one false start, she located an empty plate on the table and filled it. “We’re indulging in red meat for brunch today. Steak and scrambled eggs with mushroom sauce, grilled potatoes, and green peas. Mrs. Osgood takes very good care of us and makes sure we get the really fattening stuff early in the day, so we can work it off.”

“Thanks. Not so much, please. I’m not a heavy eater any time of the day.”

“Do you drink water or milk?” asked Mrs. Osgood, placing a glass and silver next to my hand.

“Milk’s fine. Thanks.”

“Ah, another fighter against the scourge of osteoporosis,” observed Mrs. Sperling.

“Not really,” I answered. “I just like milk. I’m glad you have low fat. I can’t stand milk you can see through.”

“Nor can I abide the taste of nonfat. I have tried and tried, and I still don’t like it.”

I chuckled in agreement. “So. What’s up today? You said you needed me at eleven.”

“I said that would be the earliest. There’s a young girl I’m tutoring at the Braille Institute. She called and said she was sick today and couldn’t make it. I suspect she hasn’t got her homework done again. But alas, I have no evidence. Nonetheless, it is a fortunate cancellation. We shall finish our meal at leisure, then call on Sergeant Michaelson.”

“Do you have an appointment?”

“No.”

“But what if he’s not there?”

“All the better. We shall be able to read the reports without his bias.”

Sergeant Michaelson was on his lunch break when we arrived at the Beverly Hills Police Station.

“Mrs. Sperling, those reports have not been released to the general public,” sighed a smallish clerk in a uniform. His nameplate said Bradley.

“Since when am I the general public?” Mrs. Sperling countered.

“I know, but…”

“Must I bother Chief Matthews?”

Bradley threw his arms in the air and searched through a file cabinet.

“You’re lucky he’s your cousin,” he said, handing her a file folder.

“I’m even luckier he owed me one.” Mrs. Sperling smiled and handed the file to me.

I waited until Bradley had left the room. “What did the chief owe you?”

“A major case, and his life. He wanted to give me a medal and the substantial reward that was being offered. I asked for free access to all Beverly Hills police reports, past, present and future, and got it. He suggested he would rue the day, but he has yet to. By the way, I am counting on your complete discretion.”

“Nary a word, ma’am.” I opened the file. “Let’s see. We’ve got photographs of the room. There’s some suitcases under the cot. I don’t think I mentioned that.”

“No. How interesting. Mr. Hoffman mentioned that Mr. Stein and his wife newly separated. I suspect Mr. Stein was living in his gallery. Were the contents inventoried?”

“Uh, yeah. Here they are. Twelve shirts, nine pairs of pants, thirty-one pairs of briefs…”

“Hm. Obsessive about clean underwear. Go on.”

“Twelve pairs of socks, four belts, eight sets of suspenders, seven tank tops, nine t-shirts, eight pairs of jeans…”

“How many suitcases were there?”

“Three. Um, two bathrobes, one pair of slippers, and eight pairs of shoes.”

“That’s everything?”

“Yeah. They didn’t list colors.”

“No pajamas.”

“Nope.”

“That’s interesting.”

“He probably slept in the raw,” I said and looked over the report again. “I didn’t see any toiletries listed either. There was some soap, toothpaste and a toothbrush in the bathroom, but nothing else. He should at least have shampoo and deodorant, more likely he’d have everything that Glen has spread out all over the bathroom.”

“Odd. Glen is an excellent housekeeper.”

“Not in the bathroom. It’s clean and all. There’s just lots of clutter.”

“Oh. As for the late Mr. Stein, I take it there is no shower in the gallery.”

“You take it correct.”

“Then no toiletries. I would venture to guess that Mr. Stein is a member of a gymnasium in the local area, and has a permanent locker there, and that is where his toiletries are.”

“Of course.”

“We should verify that. If the toiletries are indeed missing, that could be an important clue, and their actual location an even better one. What else does the report say?”

“It just describes the room, and our statements, and the conversation with Mr. Hoffman, and Bedelia Parrish, his landlady.”

“It’s early, yet, but there wouldn’t happen to be a coroner’s report, would there?”

“Yeah, here. He died between eight-thirty and ten o’clock. He received a blow on the head, in the back, close to the time of death. It was definitely carbon monoxide poisoning. The body had been moved since death. Stomach contents were potatoes, ketchup, mustard, pickles, reconstituted onions, hamburger, bread, cola.”

“Oh, the poor man! Fast food for a last meal.” Mrs. Sperling shuddered.

I grinned. “He’d eaten two to four hours before he died. He’d had at least one hernia operation, probably as a child, and apparently no other surgeries. There was a long scar on his leg, a cut sewn together, also fairly old. No signs of needle marks or other illegal drugs, beyond some scarring in the lungs typical of moderate marijuana use.”

“Has he been formally identified?”

“Yes, by his wife, Ramona Bistler.”

“Ramona Bistler? No wonder they were splitting.” Mrs. Sperling frowned. “That was a terribly catty thing to say. But unfortunately apt.”

“You know her?”

“Not well. A friend of a friend. I’ve met her at several parties. Her husband was never with her, nor did she tend towards fidelity, I’m sorry to say. I have eyewitnesses on that account.”

“Hm. Well, the lab report confirms everything else we know. Oh, there’s a note here that the print in the room is being authenticated.”

“And I just got a call before lunch that it’s genuine.” Sergeant Michaelson’s voice startled me. “Dear Mrs. Sperling, taking advantage of the Chief’s graciousness again, I see.”

“Blood tells, dear Sergeant.” Mrs. Sperling smiled primly.

“So what conclusions have you drawn?”

“None yet, except that Mr. Stein was slightly obsessive about underwear. You didn’t happen to go through it, did you?”

“As a matter of fact, I did. So?”

“Was it in good repair?”

“It all looked brand new to me. Come to think of it, I thought he’d been saving it over the years. It was a lot of underwear. But I didn’t see any signs of wear.”

“Ah. A very orderly, clean person, wouldn’t you say?”

“Yeah. His desk was in pretty good shape.”

“Then why was there bird seed all over the place?”

“That’s easy,” I put in. “Birds are a mess.”

“But all over the room?” Mrs. Sperling frowned. “Usually the mess is somewhat contained.”

I shrugged. “It blew around. My sister had birdseed all the way to the bathroom when she had a bird.”

“But is your sister neat and orderly? Mr. Stein was.” She thought about it, then brushed it off. “Well, that piece of the puzzle shall eventually fit. Is there anything else in the report, Donna?”

“Not that I can see.”

“Anything to add, Sergeant?”

“As a matter of fact, yes. A couple salespeople from two different shops in the neighborhood said that on Wednesday they saw Stein arguing with a customer. It was pretty loud, and a piece of pottery got broken. One of the witnesses identified the customer as Devon of Devonaire. Does that ring a bell?”

“No,” replied Mrs. Sperling.

“There’s a store on Melrose called Devonaire,” I said. “It’s women’s clothing.”

Michaelson shrugged. “I think somebody said the guy, is a clothing designer.”

“That’s very interesting,” Mrs. Sperling said. “We’ll have to talk to him about it.”

“That’s all I’ve got for you,” Sergeant Michaelson said.

“Fine. We shall vacate, then. Oh, one thing more, Sergeant. The officer patrolling the neighborhood of the gallery. Did he happen to note the presence of any cars in that alley that night?”

“Officer Willoughby was on duty and, uh, made no such notation.” Sergeant Michaelson shifted.

“You have reason to doubt the officer?” Mrs. Sperling had caught his unease also.

“Not per se. The local security patrol didn’t note any suspicious vehicles either. Willoughby just gives me a bad feeling is all.”

“I see. Perhaps we should press Officer Wiyybybyloughby on this matter. If you would be so good as to give me his address, I will do so.”

“I’ll go you one better. Here he is right now.”

Officer Willoughby was a fairly young man with blonde hair. Tall and slightly filled out, he was wearing a worn polo shirt and faded jeans. Sergeant Michaelson waved him into the detectives’ room.

“Yeah, Sergeant. What’s up?” Willoughby growled passively.

“This is Mrs. Delilah Sperling,” answered the sergeant. “She’s taken an interest in the Stein murder.”

“You’re off duty,” Mrs. Sperling observed.

“Uh, yeah.” Willoughby looked puzzled. I, too, wondered how Mrs. Sperling figured that one out.

“If I remember correctly, your shift should end at six thirty in the morning,” Mrs. Sperling said to the unasked question. “What brings you here at this time of day?”

“Got a friend on the cross-over shift. We’re gonna play racquetball when he gets off.”

“Ah. I see. I understand you were patrolling the alley and neighborhood around Mr. Stein’s gallery the night before last.”

“Sure.”

“And you did not notice any suspicious cars?”

“No.”

“None?”

“None.”

“Odd.”

“I don’t know what anyone else is saying, ma’am. But I did not see anything out of place in that alley all night.”

“Very well, then.” Mrs. Sperling rewarded him with a smile. She signaled me, and we bade good-bye to the two policemen and left the station.

We headed back to the gallery. Mrs. Sperling wanted to find out some more about Mr. Stein’s psychology. Most of the people in the neighboring stores knew him, but nobody knew him very well.

“He was one of those loner types,” sighed Geraldine, the owner of the clothes boutique next to the gallery. “He was real nice. And responsible, too. Always showed up at our merchants’ association meetings. On time, which is more than I can say. He always said hi when he saw me. But I can’t say I knew him. Hell, I didn’t even know he was married until I heard about the split.” She sniffed. “I’m gonna miss him. He was a real hot dresser. Really had style, not like some guys you see, all trendy and no panache. Or worse yet, complete rebellion. Poor Josh. He really knew how to dress.”

Geraldine was the most expansive on Mr. Josh Stein’s personality. Most of the other merchants muttered platitudes about Mr. Stein’s nice nature, and that was it. Until we met Mr. Leon Dresser.

He was one of the salespeople Sergeant Michaelson had mentioned. Dressed in a bright blue jumpsuit and beret, he was an average sized man with cropped blond hair, and earrings parading all along the edges of his ears.

“Oh, who knows what they were arguing about!” he gushed. “I certainly didn’t care. Devon is about as obnoxious as they come. He thinks he’s the only person with taste on the entire West Coast. Have you seen his stuff? I’ve seen better on the beds in the Sears catalog. Of course, I was surprised. Shocked, even. I mean Josh, well it took a lot to get him mad, if you know what I mean. But there they were, yelling at each other. Then the pottery went, I’m not sure how, and Josh lost it. That’s when I left. Seeing a man lose his temper like that is not a pretty sight, nor one for strangers.”

Mrs. Sperling agreed with a sigh.

“Kind of suspicious, huh?” I said as we walked to the gallery and the car.

“Not necessarily,” replied Mrs. Sperling. “We shall have to wait and see if the argument is truly significant. Eleanor, halt. This is the alley?”

“Yeah.”

“Anyplace near the gallery that a car could hide?”

“Not really. There’s a large metal trash bin two doors down. But that would only hide a small car, and from this end only. There’s a major cross street a block down.”

“The car could have come and gone between both patrols. It wouldn’t have needed to stay long.”

“Five minutes, max. So now what?”

“That’s a good question. I recommend home for the moment. We have to find where Mr. Stein’s gymnasium is. I’ve a feeling we shall have to find out from Ms. Ramona Bistler, and that will require strategy. Yes, home is definitely the place.”

“Right away, Mrs. Sperling.”

As I drove into the driveway, Glen pulled in behind us and whipped around to the other end of the drive. I let Mrs. Sperling out near the kitchen door, then garaged the DeVille. I had to chuckle as I looked at the driveway. At one end was the garage which sheltered Mrs. Sperling’s bright red V.W. convertible and her traditional black Cadillac limousine, in addition to the DeVille. Along the side of the garage were parked my Altima, Glen’s beat-up Toyota sedan, and a Triumph Spitfire that belonged to Mrs. Osgood. The three older cars looked as though they were huddling together, bemoaning their derelict appearances amongst so much wealth.

Inside, Glen tried to get information out of Mrs. Sperling.

“You mean you have no idea?” he groaned.

“I have some, but it’s much too early to form a hypothesis. There are many more facts to be gathered first.”

“Bitchen,” he sulked. Mrs. Sperling cleared her throat. “Oh, sorry. Nobody else thinks it’s a cuss word.”

“Nonetheless, it’s insulting to female dogs.”

“Yeah.” Glen sighed. “I guess what I really want to know is how am I going to get my real Niedeman?”

“That is something the lawyers will have to decide,” Mrs. Sperling replied. “I’d best warn you, you may not.”

Glen held back a barrage of profanities. “That’s all I need. I’m already out several hundred dollars, if I can even find one.”

“I’m sorry, Glen.” Mrs. Sperling was genuinely so. “But don’t panic yet. A lot depends on how involved Mr. Stein was in the counterfeiting business. If there are criminal charges against him, the court may put a lien on his estate. It might also see that you are recompensed. It all depends on how the questions are answered, and how you present your case.”

The doorbell rang and Glen hurried off to answer it. I followed Mrs. Sperling into the living room. Glen arrived with us.

“It’s Mrs. Delgado,” he said. “Are you receiving?”

Mrs. Sperling perked up. “Norma? Of course, I will. Show her in.”

Glen left.

“Um, should I excuse myself?” I asked.

“Not unless you want to.”

Mrs. Sperling turned to greet her guest. Norma Delgado was probably around Mrs. Sperling’s age, and easily as well kept up. Her black hair showed slivers of grey and was drawn into a neat bun at the back of her neck. She was shorter and rounder than Mrs. Sperling. Her shirtwaist dress was a polished cotton with the kind of detailed tailoring that meant money.

“Delilah, I just happened to be in the neighborhood, and I thought I’d take a chance and see if you were in,” she said with sincere warmth. Just a hint of an accent belied her Hispanic ancestry.

“We’re fortunate, then,” replied Mrs. Sperling. “I just got back. Please have a seat.”

“Thank you.” Mrs. Delgado smiled at me. “Is this a new friend or employee?”

“Oh, this is Donna Brechter, my new chauffeur. Donna, this is Mrs. Norma Delgado.”

“Pleased to meet you,” I replied with a quick nod.

“Go ahead and sit down, Donna,” Mrs. Sperling directed.

I sat down on the edge of the sofa.

“What happened to Jimmy?” Mrs. Delgado asked.

“He sold too many books,” said Mrs. Sperling. “His publisher sent him on a publicity tour, and he had to leave before I could get another chauffeur. He felt very bad about it, in fact, I had quite a time convincing him he should go. I survived with taxis in the meantime, and Glen, when he wasn’t in class. But now I have Donna, and she’s been most satisfactory.”

“Thanks,” I muttered and blushed.

“Good.” Mrs. Delgado smiled again. “Actually, I was going to call you. Have you heard about Ramona Bistler’s husband?”

“Oh, yes.” A mischievous smile crept onto Mrs. Sperling’s lips.

“Oh, no. When I heard he’d been murdered, I had this strange feeling you’d be up to your elbows in it, or about to be.” Mrs. Delgado looked Mrs. Sperling over. “Well, am I wrong?”

“Very right, I’m afraid. We found the body.”

“And have been investigating ever since. Then maybe you will be interested. Alisa Montrose is having a party tonight, after the viewing.”

“I’m not sure…”

“I know Alisa is unbearable, and frankly, I don’t blame you. But the party is for Ramona, to cheer her up, not that… Oh dear, I can’t help it. Not that Ramona needs it.”

Mrs. Sperling sighed. “I’m afraid Ramona does ask for a certain amount of talk behind her back.”

“I know. But I hate being catty. It’s bad enough having to be pleasant to people like Alisa Montrose. I don’t want to be like her. I’m serious. If it weren’t for Mario depending on her vote, and everyone else’s, I’d make it a point to avoid her.”

“Such is the burden of a politician’s wife. And how is the judge?”

“Working like a dog, as usual. He’s beginning to worry about being re-elected. Then there’s all the work he has to do as his job. I say he’s crazy, but he loves it, so I’m happy for him. Fortunately, my business keeps me occupied when I want to be. Oh, Mario said to invite you to dinner next week. He wants to talk to somebody without campaigning.”

“Certainly. Is Friday good?”

“Perfect. As for tonight, the viewing is from six to eight, party from eight-thirty to whenever. I don’t mean to scare you off, but Alisa specifically asked me to invite you. I think it’s ghoulish curiosity. Still, I thought that if you were looking into the matter, it would provide you with an opportunity to talk to Ramona.”

“It would indeed.” Mrs. Sperling lapsed into a brief daze. She snapped out of it quickly. “I suppose I shall suffer through it. I take it you’ll be there also?”

“Of course. I’m going to be partying from now until the election next June. I’ve got to do my bit to keep Mario on his bench.”

“Let me know what parties you’ll be going to, and I’ll try and fit a few into my schedule.”

“Delilah, you are a doll.” Mrs. Delgado got up. “Masochistic, but a doll. I’m going to hurry on now. I’ll see you tonight. Don’t get up. I’ll see myself out.”

“Donna,” Mrs. Sperling said when we were alone. “I don’t think I’ll be needing you for the rest of the afternoon. But have the limo ready at eight-fifteen.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“Did you have plans for tonight?”

“Strictly tentative.”

“Well, unless they’re early, don’t cancel them. I doubt I’ll be late.”

“You don’t have to do that. I don’t mind working.”

“I’m sure you don’t, and normally I wouldn’t. But I seriously doubt I’m going to be spending much time at Alisa Montrose’s.”

 

mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Three

As soon as the tab was settled, we returned Dolores to her gallery. I pulled out, then stopped for a red light at the end of the block.

“Well, now what?” asked Glen.

“Donna, did you hear the address Dolores gave me?” Mrs. Sperling countered.

“Yes, I did.”

“So we’re going to talk to this Gonzagos dude?” Glen gulped.

“You needn’t be so nervous, Glen,” said Mrs. Sperling. “I did say that the evidence points away from him.”

“We’ll just hope he’s not drunk,” I teased.

“If he is intoxicated, we’ll merely beat a hasty retreat,” Mrs. Sperling replied to Glen’s groan. “In vino is not necessarily veritas.”

“Oh.” Glen frowned. He had no idea what Mrs. Sperling meant, but he wasn’t about to admit it.

Fred Gonzagos’ house was in the Fairfax district. It was an apartment in a larger house with a pink stuccoed Spanish exterior and a black wrought iron staircase sweeping up to his door. The building had probably been built in the thirties. The neighborhood was quite neat and almost sleepy. I decided that if Gonzagos was suffering from racial oppression, he didn’t do too badly by it. Then I remembered his other career.

Mrs. Sperling decided to stay in the car. I guess she didn’t expect much success. I felt brave, so I left Glen with her, and went to the door myself. Mrs. Sperling was right. I got no answer, at least not from the apartment.

“Hey! Who are you?” called a matronly voice with a thick Spanish accent below me.

I cautiously came down the stairs. “Um, I’m looking for Mr. Gonzagos. I understand he has some Niedemans for sale.”

“I don’t give a damn what you here for,” growled the woman, a stout Hispanic lady whose age and bearing matched her voice. “I want to know who you are.”

“I’m a customer for Mr. Gonzagos.” I remained firm.

She threw up her arms. “Well, you can’t talk to him. He’s been out of town since yesterday. And don’t get no fancy ideas. This whole house got more alarms than the White House, and they all connected to the police station.”

“I believe you.” I backed off. “Any idea when he’ll be back?”

“Few days, few weeks, who knows?”

“Know where he went?”

“If I knew that, I know when he come back!” She waddled back into her abode, grumbling under her breath in Spanish.

“Well?” asked Glen upon my return.

“A big fat zip,” I grumbled. “He’s out of town since yesterday, which sounds kind of suspicious to me.”

“It does,” agreed Mrs. Sperling. “Any return date or location?”

“None.”

“Even more suspicious, but not at all likely to stand up in court. Could be a very convenient coincidence for the real killer.”

“Where to now, Mrs. Sperling?” I asked, starting the engine.

“Home,” she answered. “I do have a life outside of counterfeit serigraphs and murders, and you, Donna, have some moving to do.”

“That’s right. Will I need any towels or anything like that?”

“Just your personal toiletries. Do you think you’ll be able to return by six? I’d like to let Mrs. Osgood know how many to expect for dinner.”

“I don’t know. I’ll just hit a drive-thru.”

“Ooph! I’ll ask Mrs. Osgood to save you a plate.”

“Thanks.”

The first thing I did when we got back to the house was phone my mother. She was thrilled to hear I was definitely employed and moving out. I found out how thrilled when I got home. She had called Dad home early from their store and had him dismantling my bed by the time I got there.

“My room is already furnished, Mom,” I told her. “I thought I said so on the phone.”

“I know, dear. But we’re turning this one into a study. Dad’s computer is going in here, and my desk. I don’t know, Walt. What do you think of mauve?”

“It’s okay,” grunted my father, struggling with the box springs.

“Walt, are you even listening to me? I’m trying to make a decision here, and I need your help.”

Smiling to myself, I went and got the suitcases my mom was letting me borrow. I doubted Mom would get any help from my dad. As much as I love him, I have to admit I’ve never heard him give an opinion on anything.

As I left, Mom grabbed her purse and followed me out the door.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“To the paint store. I’ve got an appointment with the decorator there.”

“So much for empty nest syndrome.”

“Oh, Donna.” Mom sighed as she stopped and looked at me. “You’re not hurt, are you?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I know you’ve had plans for my room for a while.”

“Well, your brother and sisters are gone. I guess I’ve been so used to you being gone so much, it felt like you didn’t live here. That, and I’ve already been through the separation process. You know how bad I felt when Debbie left. Of course, she was my baby.”

“And going to live with her boyfriend.”

“At least they got married last year. What a mess that was. I think that’s why I’m acting like this. Get it over with right away. Short and sweet.” She suddenly hugged me. “My firstborn angel. I’m gonna miss you.”

“I can stay,” I teased.

“Hell, no! Oh, Donna! You know what I mean. I’m serious, darling. If this doesn’t work out, you come right on back. I don’t want you to be afraid of that. You’re always welcome here. I said that to Peter, and Denise, and Debbie. I’m still saying that to Debbie.”

“You are never going to forgive Ernie, are you?”

“She was only eighteen, and he was nineteen. How were they supposed to support themselves?”

“Well, they did, and still are, better than I was for a long time.”

“That’s different, dear. Maybe your father didn’t understand, but I knew there are just some things you have to get out of your system.”

“Yeah.” I sighed to myself.

“Now, are you gonna be alright?”

“Oh, sure. Mrs. Sperling is a perfect lady.” With a penchant for murder. But I wasn’t about to tell my mother that.

“At least she isn’t a man. I am a little worried, but you know best. Why don’t you come home Sunday for dinner? Peter and Elise are coming, and Denise said she might show.”

“If Mrs. Sperling doesn’t need me to take her somewhere.”

“Call me, then. Oops! I’d better get running. Take care, darling.”

“You, too, Mom.”

I kissed her, then got back into my old Altima, and headed west to Los Angeles and my new life. I couldn’t help sighing. While I didn’t dare admit it to my mother, or Mrs. Sperling, I still hadn’t gotten the show business thing out of my system. I found myself wondering how long it would take to save up for new pictures, and whether I could get a night or two off for classes, or maybe an afternoon or morning to go to auditions.

The dream of making it was still as strong as ever. I doubted I’d ever be rid of it. But one thing my folks always taught me was that if you make a commitment, you don’t break it. I had promised I’d be self-supporting when I turned twenty-six, and at last, I was.

Well, I had moved out at any rate. My new home was a fair-sized room, decorated with a Louis Quinze escritoire and chair, a matching breakfront, lush rose-colored carpeting, and a simple bed covered by a tapestry style bedspread featuring lords and ladies being pastoral in eighteenth-century dress. The walls were bare to allow me my own tastes. A full-length mirror was bolted to the closet door. The closet was huge and had plenty of extra shelves built in.

The only drawback to the whole set-up was that I had to share a bathroom with Glen. Upon the departure of my predecessor, he had spread out. The counter was littered with mousse cans, gel tubes, blow dryer, soaps, creams, shaving equipment, aspirin bottles, tissues, nasal decongestants, and nameless other containers. Stuck to the mirror were pictures of various art, mostly women. The bathtub/shower had its share of bottles and several hangers with drying sweaters and pants hanging from the curtain rod.

It was a pity the room was such a mess. It would have been a gorgeous bathroom otherwise. The tub and counter were both black marble. The cabinets were lovely white French Provincial, and the fixtures were bright brass with white porcelain. The counter, fortunately, had two sinks. The linens were lush soft towels in grey, navy, and white, and were laying on the floor.

I picked one up.

“Oh, you’re back,” said Glen, as he came in.

“Yeah.” I looked at him. “You are worse than my brother and two sisters combined.”

“I, uh, gotta clean up. Set your stuff down here and go eat dinner. The plate’s in the oven, salad in the refrigerator. No feeding Eleanor.”

“Okay.”

I wandered through the house until I found the kitchen. The lights were on, and a large black woman dressed in a white uniform and apron bent over something on the stove. She looked up and smiled when she saw me.

“You must be Donna,” she said with a slight Jamaican rhythm. “I’m Mrs. Osgood. I cook for Mrs. Sperling. The dinner is in the oven. Help yourself.”

“Thanks.” I retrieved the plate and got the salad out of the refrigerator. I was almost afraid to eat, the plate looked so lovely. There were two lamb cutlets, perfectly pink, browned swirled potatoes, and carrots and zucchini that were just starting to lose their bright color from the wait in the oven. “You do this every night?”

“Not always lamb. I cook many other things.”

“But so fancy.”

She let out a big, well-rounded laugh. “I am trained at the Cordon Bleu. I have been a cook at many of the best restaurants in Los Angeles. But I do not like it. I work for Mrs. Sperling and do things like this. You see? A beautiful demi-glace. This one must wait overnight for the full flavor to come out. You cannot always do this at a restaurant. There it is always fast, and good cooking will not always take that.” She breathed in the steam coming from the pot and sighed in pure pleasure.

She finished up while I ate and left. I continued my meal, browsing through the mail I had brought from home. It was all ads, and my Backstage West. I spread the trade paper out and forced myself to read the front of it before skipping to the casting notices. I heard soft clicking, then saw Eleanor morosely look up at me.

“I’m not supposed to feed you,” I told her.

The dog whined, then padded over to the refrigerator. I went back to dinner and reading.

About five minutes later, I became aware of hot breath on my hand.

“Eleanor! Get down!” Mrs. Sperling’s well-bred voice commanded.

Eleanor removed her paws from the table top and slunk over to her corner by the refrigerator. Mrs. Sperling stood in the doorway.

“How…” I stopped myself from asking the rude question with a great deal of stammering. “Oh, uh, hi.”

“Enjoying your meal?” Mrs. Sperling headed for the pantry with her own exquisite grace.

“Yeah. It’s terrific. Mrs. Osgood informed me that you always eat this well.”

“When I’m here, I do.” She opened the pantry door, reached in, then frowned. “Unfortunately, Mrs. Osgood considers the kitchen her domain, which makes it a little awkward for me when I want a snack after she goes home.” She pulled out a box of powdered milk and sniffed at it. “Are these my biscuits? No.” She rummaged again. “Ah. These. Arrowroot biscuits. One of my greater weaknesses. Now, if she just hasn’t moved the milk.”

She negotiated the refrigerator door and Eleanor and rescued the carton of low fat.

“Are you all moved in?” she asked, sitting down with a glass, the milk and cookie box.

“Not completely. I still have some clothes and books and odds and ends at my folks’ place. I’ll be retrieving them as time goes on.”

“That’s convenient.”

“Umm.” I looked her over carefully. “I don’t know if this is too personal to ask…”

“But you’d like to know why I’m investigating a murder when I am obviously not a member of the police department.” Mrs. Sperling smiled, completely unruffled by my nosiness. “Given that I have you assisting me, you certainly have a right to know. I’m a private investigator, by avocation. I have a license just for credibility’s sake, and I occasionally accept fees.”

“Oh.” I frowned. “But this morning, we were only going to find out about the forgery, then you went ahead after the murderer. Aren’t you supposed to have a client before you do that?”

“Well…” Mrs. Sperling let out a lady-like, but merry giggle. “It’s only a matter of finding one. I’ll admit, it’s a rather backward way to go about it, but it works. Glen has agreed to act as my client for the time being. There is another who might be more interested, but he, alas, is not home. By the way, Glen usually screens my calls, but you may answer the phone, also. Leave any messages for me on the voice recorder next to the hall phone. You might also want to write them down just in case.”

“Sure.” I went back to eating. “Have you heard any more on the Stein murder?”

“Not much. Sergeant Michaelson questioned Mr. Hoffman more extensively than I did. Mr. Hoffman claims he worked late because of the power outage, then went out with friends, the latter part of which the good sergeant has already verified. Mr. Hoffman’s landlady confirms that Mr. Hoffman came in when he did, and says he got up at his usual time of seven o’clock. At least she heard his clock radio go off. According to the sergeant, she rather belabored that point. Apparently, Mr. Hoffman is in the habit of turning the volume on quite loud and forgetting to turn the thing off. She lives under him.”

“I guess Hoffman’s out, then.”

“Not necessarily. I have too few facts to begin ruling out suspects. Still, it doesn’t seem likely that Mr. Hoffman is the killer. He didn’t strike me as being terribly intelligent, and this particular murder was quite cleverly put together. Perhaps not the murder itself, but the way the body was left…” Mrs. Sperling slowly froze as she became immersed in her thoughts.

I didn’t really notice. “Maybe it was Gonzagos, then. Maybe he blew his stack and hit Stein, then took advantage of it and left him in the car.”

“It doesn’t really fit what we know of Mr. Gonzagos’ psychologically. He is only violent when he’s drunk, and inebriated, he could never have set up the body that way. Still, it would give him access to Mr. Stein’s keys, which were not found, by the way.” Mrs. Sperling snapped out of her daze and went back to dunking cookies in milk. “It’s far too soon to say for sure. The counterfeiting motive is an awkward one, as it is an obvious attempt to discredit Mr. Stein. Furthermore, despite his suspicious disappearance, we cannot say anything definite about Mr. Gonzagos psychologically until we’ve met him. Dolores is extremely accurate in her perceptions of people, but one can misconstrue motives.”

I grinned. “How’d you get into investigating? I mean, well…”

“That my blindness would seem to be an insurmountable handicap in the detection field?” She laughed. “It can be a problem if I can’t get accurate detailed descriptions. But a lot of detection is understanding the psychology of the criminal. The rest is merely applying logic. Even the most unbalanced and insane behave to a logic of their own. The trick is in discovering it.”

“That’s some trick.”

“One merely adds up the discrepancies, and there’s always a logical reason for them.”

“But still…”

“Everyone makes the art of deduction harder than it is. You deduce things every day.”

“How?”

“Well, you look out your window in the morning. Your room is quite nice and warm. But outside the sky is overcast. What do you do?”

“Put on a coat when I go outside because it’s cold.”

“But what if it’s June?”

I laughed. “I’d put on my shorts. The clouds will have burnt off by one.”

“Brava! You made a deduction based on clues. Because I have no sight, I have to rely on other clues than you and make more deductions just to survive on my own. Maybe that’s why I’m such a good detective. I also tend towards an orderly mindset.”

“So you just started snooping one day.”

“Not really. My father used to read to me quite copiously when I was young, there not being nearly as many audiobooks available that there are now. He was always a fan of detective fiction, Rex Stout and Raymond Chandler being his particular favorites. They weren’t mine. I didn’t have any sympathy for the characters, and I always guessed who did it long before Father did. Then Father read Whose Body? to me, by Dorothy Sayers. I’ve been an incurable Lord Peter Wimsey fan ever since. I still figured them out rather quickly, but at least I had sympathy for the characters, and for detecting. In my innocence, I decided that if Nero Wolfe could get away with never seeing the scene, so could I, and without being a pompous old poop about it.” She sucked on a milk-soaked cookie before eating it. “It was terribly juvenile, but I was determined to prove that I could do it, which I did.”

“But why keep on, especially if you’ve made your point? Unless you need to for a living.”

“My living was made for me years ago.” She chuckled and soaked another cookie. “I keep on for the same reason actors continue to act after they’ve made their fortunes or CEOs continue to go into the office when they could comfortably retire. You’re not going to stop dancing when you’ve made your fortune.”

“Well, no. Not that it’s likely I’ll get my chance.”

“Either way, you’ll still dance. It’s what you are. And I am a detective. I can’t stop any more than you can.”

“Hm.” I looked at her carefully. “Do you resent being blind?”

“No. I’ve never seen, so I don’t really know what I’m supposedly missing. I don’t know that life is that much harder. I’d like to drive myself, perhaps. But even when I didn’t have a chauffeur, I always found public transportation to be sufficient.”

“It wasn’t too limiting?”

“Occasionally. Life is full of limits. There are some things that you simply cannot do. But do you spend much time grieving over it?”

“No.”

“Neither do I.” She smiled. “I did resent being different as a child. However, given the perspective of time, I realize that I would have still been different even with sight. My parents are unusual people. They believe in convention only so far as it prevents anarchy. My father always said to stay on the right side of the law but live on your own terms. He and my mother truly do.”

“Are they retired?”

“More or less. My father spends about four months out of the year overseeing his business interests. The rest of the time, he and my mother travel.”

“Lucky stiffs.”

“They’re extremely lucky, mostly because they’re blessed with the ability to be happy wherever they are, and they’re hopelessly in love with each other.”

“That’s great.” This time I heard Eleanor at the same time as Mrs. Sperling. “Hey!”

“Eleanor, to your room,” commanded Mrs. Sperling.

Sulking, Eleanor padded out.

“How long have you had her?” I asked.

“Three years now.”

“Did the school name her Eleanor, or was that your idea?”

“Mine. I changed it the third day I had her. It seemed more appropriate. Her full name is Eleanor Roosevelt.”

“I don’t get it.”

“She’s such a buttinsky.”

“Ah. You’re a Republican.”

“My father is, vehemently so. My mother is a devout Democrat, a fact she’s hidden from my father all their lives. She comes from a time when women catered to their men, not that she ever did. She merely thinks that they have such a nice relationship, why muck it up with nonessentials?” She stood. “I’d best get back upstairs. I have a recording to make for a friend of mine. Just leave your dish in the sink. Help yourself to breakfast.”

“Thanks. Um. What time will you be needing me tomorrow?”

“Eleven, at the earliest.”

“Good. There’s a dance class in Hollywood that I usually take. It goes from eight to ten. I’d kind of like to keep it up when it doesn’t interfere. I don’t want to get out of shape.”

“Especially if a good role comes up.”

“Uh, yeah.” I sighed. “But this job comes first.”

“I understand. You’re a dancer. Do you still have an agent?”

“A commercial one. My theatrical agent I’m dropping. He almost never sends me out.”

“Too bad for him.” She put the milk back in the refrigerator, then paused. “Donna, if you do get an audition or job, please tell me. I’m willing to work around things.”

“You are? Aren’t you afraid I’ll get too tied up in it?”

“Not if we’re communicating. And although I’m confident you are very talented, I also know the odds. Even with a great deal of talent, innocents like you have a harder time making it than others. I seriously doubt there will be that many conflicts. But keep trying, Donna.”

“Thanks,” I muttered, utterly surprised and awed by her generosity.

mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Two

mystery fiction, mystery serial, mystery fiction serialThe first thing Mrs. Sperling did was send Kyle Hoffman to phone the police. The second thing was to have me describe the room and all of its contents.

“Well, it’s very plain,” I said, nervously. “Do you want size?”

“Judging from the echoes, I’d say approximately four hundred square feet.” Mrs. Sperling answered. “Glen?”

“Uh, yeah, close to that.” Glen was trying not to panic.

“Okay.” I swallowed. “On the wall opposite to us is an old camp cot with a six-inch-thick mattress, all made up perfectly with a dark green army blanket. The wall next to the street has three windows, all open, and there’s a birdcage and parakeet next to the center one. There’s bird seed all over the place. There’s a door in the wall facing the windows, and all sorts of shelves with pictures in them. Behind you is a desk with tons of papers on it, and more bird seed, et cetera.”

“Interesting,” murmured Mrs. Sperling.

“In the center of the room,” I continued. “Are two long tables like you find in school multi-purpose rooms. On the furthest one is a flat wooden box with screens…”

“A silk screening apparatus,” Glen cut in.

“So I surmised,” answered Mrs. Sperling. “Are the inks there also?”

“Six or seven jars of them,” I said. “And the previously mentioned serigraph hanging to the right of the box. The, uh, body is lying between the two tables. The nearer one has several frame pieces, more papers and a hot plate on it, and what looks like left-over bread on a paper plate.”

“Describe the body.”

“The body?” I balked. “It’s a man, and he’s real red.”

“Carbon monoxide poisoning.” Mrs. Sperling nodded. “What is he wearing?”

“Clothes.”

“Would you look again at the body and give me a more accurate description?”

Gulping back all sorts of obscenities, I did as I was asked.

“Alright. He’s wearing dark brown high-waisted pants, brown like rich soil, blue, tan and yellow paisley big shirt, paisley is like a bent over teardrop shape, brown suspenders, a brown tweed sloppy cardigan, black socks and brown loafers.”

“There’s something wrong there.” Mrs. Sperling frowned. “But I can’t think what.” Motioning Eleanor forward, she moved about the room, sniffing discreetly.

Sirens approached as Hoffman wandered in.

“Cops are on their way,” he announced needlessly. He glanced at Mrs. Sperling, then whispered to Glen and me, “What’s she doing?”

“Investigating, Mr. Hoffman,” Mrs. Sperling said, not stopping. “It is my metier, much like an artist’s is painting, or Mr. Stein’s was this gallery. When did you get here this morning?”

“Me?” he almost yelped. “Uh, about nine or so. I went straight to the roof. Repairs, you know.”

“I see.”

Hoffman nervously chuckled. “Good joke.”

“Joke?” Mrs. Sperling turned, then softly laughed herself. “I suppose it was a witticism, albeit unconscious.”

“Yeah.” Hoffman grinned without understanding.

“Well, hello, Mrs. Sperling,” said a new voice.

“Sergeant Michaelson,” Mrs. Sperling exclaimed warmly.

He stood in the doorway, with a uniformed officer behind. The sergeant was average height, good-looking in a domesticated sort of way, with soft brown receding hair, light freckles, and a medium-priced grey suit.

“You don’t usually show up this soon,” Michaelson continued.

“We found the body,” replied Mrs. Sperling.

“That’s convenient.” Michaelson smiled. It was evident that these two were greater friends than rivals. Michaelson looked around. “I’m assuming that nothing’s been touched or moved?”

“No. We found the body rather quickly, and I immediately put Mr. Hoffman to work phoning you. He just returned and hasn’t left the doorway beyond letting you in.”

“Good.” Michaelson sighed. “So, where’s the body?”

“Between the tables,” said Mrs. Sperling.

Michaelson knelt over the body. “Let’s see. We have a Caucasian male, approximately five ten in height, hundred and sixty pounds, medium brown hair. Distinct red color suggests CO poisoning. Been dead anywhere from twelve to twenty-four hours. Rigor’s passed off. I can’t tell you any more until the coroner’s had a shot at him.” Michaelson straightened. “Maybe you could tell me a few things.”

“Such as?” Mrs. Sperling cocked her head at him curiously.

“Who is he?”

“I believe Mr. Joshua Stein, the owner of this gallery, or at least the business. The building itself, I presume, is owned by Mr. Hoffman’s employer.”

“Hoffman?” Michaelson asked.

“Yeah, that’s me.” Hoffman gulped and stepped forward. “I got charge of this building.”

Michaelson got out his notebook. “Did you know Mr. Stein?”

“Yeah. That’s him on the floor.”

“Do you know the next of kin?”

“Uh, shit. I guess that’s his wife, only they’re splitting.”

“They are?” Asked Mrs. Sperling.

“Well, she’ll know the rest of the family,” Michaelson said. “How did you find the body?”

“I didn’t.” Hoffman pointed at Glen. “He did. He said Josh was counterfeiting.”

“Glen said no such thing,” interrupted Mrs. Sperling. “He didn’t even complete the suggestion that we’d caught Mr. Stein in the act. I find it odd that you automatically drew that conclusion.”

“Well, I…” Hoffman gulped. “I don’t know. I guess I’d heard it before. Yeah. You know, rumors and stuff. He’s got the stuff here for it.”

“I can think of many good reasons why a gallery owner would keep silk-screening equipment. Mr. Stein does happen to be missing drying racks, a necessary accoutrement.” Mrs. Sperling pronounced that last word with a perfect French accent.

Michaelson turned to her. “So you’re implying that somebody is setting this Stein up?”

“It would appear so.” Mrs. Sperling indicated the hanging print. “We came down here because we needed to confront Mr. Stein about a counterfeit version of this serigraph that he sold to Glen. Mr. Hoffman let us in, and Mr. Stein was discovered. Can you tell if he was moved after death?”

“I can’t say for sure until the coroner sees him, but I’d give pretty good odds.” Michaelson squatted between the tables again. “There’s several squashed bird seeds around him, leaving treads. Then there’s what probably killed him, namely the CO. Best way to get that is in a closed garage with a car running. I can’t see any way to get a car in here. And look at this. He’s got a nasty knock on the back of his noggin. Had to have occurred before death. He wouldn’t have that nice red color from breathing bad air otherwise.”

“Therefore, an obvious indication of cold-blooded murder.” Mrs. Sperling nodded sadly. “Someone banged poor Mr. Stein over the head, then left him in a closed room with an automobile running, then brought him back here. Is there any sign of the lock being forced?”

Michaelson went over and checked the door. “Nope.”

“Then the killer had keys.”

Hoffman’s eyes widened in fear. “Shit! It was an accident! I think. It wasn’t me! I was Josh’s best friend.”

“Mr. Hoffman,” Mrs. Sperling said soothingly. “Keys can be duplicated very easily, and locks can be forced without visible outward signs. There is also the possibility that the killer gained access from Mr. Stein, himself, and used his keys. You will let me know what you find, won’t you, Sergeant?”

“Naturally, Mrs. Sperling,” replied Michaelson.

Mrs. Sperling ordered Eleanor forward, and Glen and I followed her back to the car.

“Where to, Mrs. Sperling?” I asked as I opened the door for her.

She gave me an address that I put it in my maps app. It was in Hollywood, on Melrose Avenue, but east of the main shopping neighborhood.

“What is this place?” asked Glen as I pulled into the traffic.

“A studio belonging to an old friend,” replied Mrs. Sperling. “She’s knowledgeable about counterfeiting and familiar with the current people in the racket. Perhaps she’ll know who’s behind our forgery.”

“That’s right,” I said. “Those missing drying racks. But the picture was hanging. Isn’t that good enough?”

“Drying racks are used in the serigraph process to dry the several copies between the application of each color,” Mrs. Sperling explained.

“Well, if he’s doing them one at a time,” I countered.

“That’s hardly economical, but possible, which is why it’s not conclusive evidence of a frame, if you’ll pardon the pun. I did fail to mention that the real clincher is that the picture hanging up to dry was a genuine commemorative serigraph.”

“A real one?” Glen gaped. “That’s totally stupid.”

“I suspect the killer made a mistake,” said Mrs. Sperling. “Whether or not it will be the one that catches him, or her, remains to be seen.”

The block where Mrs. Sperling’s friend was located was lined on both sides by parked cars. I had to circle it twice to find an opening for the DeVille. Finding a parking place was easier than finding the address. It was a tacky little gallery in a block of stores trying to imitate the trendiness further west down the street.

The little shop was dusty and crowded with framed pictures stacked along the walls, and five V-shaped bins filled with Saran-Wrapped posters. Jingle bells on the door announced our arrival. As the bells died out, silence layered everything like the dust. Then, from behind a doorway curtained off by faded batik gauze, came a rustling sound. Glen started.

“Rats!” he hissed.

“In some ways,” replied Mrs. Sperling.

A door slammed, wood scraped, and something fell. An elderly female voice cursed with the vehemence of a high schooler and a vocabulary that could have taught an ex-con something. More scraping and struggling, more cursing, then a soft shuffling announced the woman’s arrival.

It was impossible to guess at her age beyond old. She wore her long grey hair straight and parted down the middle and wrapped with a faded red bandana headband. Her face was as wrinkled as it was tanned. A faded batik shirt covered small breasts that sagged from years without a bra. Her dirty jeans were still tight across a tiny rump. She was about average height, her eyes were bright and she smiled as easily as she swore.

“Delilah, you old bitch!” she exclaimed with obvious delight. “What the fuck are you doing out of your capitalist nirvana?”

“Searching for information, as usual.”

“As usual.”

“And not about the revolution.”

“As usual.” The old woman rolled her eyes skyward, then peered at Mrs. Sperling. “But what? It’s got to be something criminal, you old bitch. It’s not like you to inquire about lawful pursuits.”

“About your former life, dear.”

“Which one?”

“Your current lifetime. Your former career, in particular, some of your old colleagues, with whom I believe you are still in touch?”

“Fuck, yes.” The woman sulked. “Shit. At least, you don’t make Shirley MacLaine jokes. But I’ve got details verified by historians. Details I have no other way of knowing.”

“Yes, dear, I’ve seen the evidence. Interesting, but not conclusive. Still, if you’ll allow me to pick your brain over lunch, we’ll listen to some of your stories.”

“Lunch, eh?” Her smile got even wider. “It pains me to say this, but you capitalist piss-ant bastards do know how to eat. Let me lock up.”

We were on our way in minutes. Mrs. Sperling introduced us in the car. Her friend was Dolores Carmine. Whether or not that was her real name was anybody’s guess. Mrs. Sperling didn’t question it out loud, but I could tell she had her reservations.

I was directed west to an attractive eatery in the trendy neighborhood. The clientele was such that Dolores didn’t stand out at all. Nor did Mrs. Sperling in her expensive tailored suit. The hostess seemed more amused by Eleanor than ruffled, although we did have to wait several minutes before a table large enough to accommodate her and we four humans was found.

Interrogating Dolores proved to be a delicate, time-consuming process. Her mind wandered constantly. Worse yet, Glen was fascinated by her tales of past lives. With an eager audience, there was no stopping the aging hippie.

I have to admit, I found the talk interesting. I also enjoyed my fettuccine primavera. But I wondered what Mrs. Sperling wanted from Dolores Carmine. Mrs. Sperling seemed to be getting something. She dissected a grilled chicken, all the while listening intently. Every so often, between sword fights and romances on the Nile, she would ask about a different old friend of Dolores’. The reply was usually vague and led to yet another adventure.

We were all consuming white chocolate cheesecake when Mrs. Sperling asked the question that she really wanted answered.

“Dolores, among your friends in the artistic community,” she began.

“Van Gogh, you mean.”

“No, dear. This century, and lifetime, I might add. I know you are not engaging in any unauthorized copying, but you do have friends who are. If I were interested in work by a specific artist, could you tell me who would be involved in making copies?”

“Who the fuck do you want?”

“Hans Niedeman.”

“Oh, him. Hell, lots of people in that.”

“I want a good quality copy. One that could pass for the original commemorative serigraphs. It’s a very high-quality ink and paper, I might add.”

“Fred Gonzagos. The others, they’re just shit knock-offs. But Gonzagos, he’s a hell of an artist on his own. It’s the white capitalist pricks who keep his work from getting recognition, so he does copies. He’s the best silkscreen man in this town. No shit. You name it, he’ll do it for you. He even did a few lost Renoirs last summer for some tourists.”

“So he’s adept at lithographs and oils.”

“Right down to the fuckin’ signatures and numbers. He’ll be a hard bird to catch. Real spooky. And, Delilah, you know I won’t testify.”

“I have no intention of asking you.”

“What do you want him for?”

“I believe I may possess some of his work.”

“Delilah, you bitch, that ain’t all.”

Mrs. Sperling sighed. “Dolores, I can’t afford to let you scare him away. You must understand, I have no reason to suspect him, but he may be able to shed some light on a rather nasty murder in Beverly Hills. It does involve his work. You might suggest that a disappearance could make him look very bad.”

“Anybody but you.” Dolores shook her head. “It could be just racist bullshit again. But…  Fuck, I wouldn’t have mentioned his name if I didn’t think you’d give him every chance. I’m counting on you.”

“I’m only interested in the truth.”

“You and the Tooth Fairy. Fred’s an okay guy. But this murder shit worries me. Just between us, I say he could be guilty. Most bastards who make copies are pacifists. Pricks, but non-violent. Fred usually is, too, except when he’s drunk. I don’t invite him to parties, and a lot of people I know won’t either. He wrecks too much. Fuckin’ near killed Tancy Greer last week.”

“Then I would say it’s not likely Mr. Gonzagos is behind this. It was definitely pre-meditated.” Mrs. Sperling dug through her purse. “Glen, will you summon the waiter? It’s time to settle the account.”

mystery fiction, mystery serial

New Serial! A Nose for a Niedeman Launches Today

mystery fiction, mystery serial, whodunnitThe picture dominated the room. It was not a part of the room. It was stark and modern, and completely out of place, which is why it was the first thing I saw.

The room had a comfortable feel to it, in spite of its precision neatness. The gray and rust pillows on the dark blue overstuffed sofa were perfectly aligned with the corners. A Waterford crystal lamp stood on the exact center of the dark oak top on each of two end tables. Two printed velvet wingback chairs rested at a forty-five-degree angle with another dark oak table between them. A quilted reproduction of Van Gogh’s “The Harvest” watched from the wall above the sofa. Ninety degrees away, on the adjacent wall, an intricately carved marble mantelpiece framed a brick fireplace.

The picture sat on a brass easel in front of the fireplace. Aesthetics aside, it seemed a rather awkward place for it. Not that I was in any position to question it, or rather, I didn’t think I was in any position to. I had yet to meet Mrs. Sperling.

She’d hired me the day before as her chauffeur, over the phone. Her attorney had handled all the paperwork: my DMV sheet, insurance, driver’s license. It seemed pretty strange. After all, it was a live-in position. I’d asked her if she wanted to meet me first, and she laughed and said it would be pointless, but maybe I’d like to meet her. So, there I was, in her living room, wondering why she had that huge picture on the easel.

I’d been shown through the entry hall into the room by a young man in his early twenties, if that old. He was tall but didn’t look it, with light brown hair and dressed in a trendy baggy gray sweater and faded black jeans.

He returned, and carefully adjusted the huge lace doily on the back of the sofa.

“Mrs. S. will be down in a minute,” he said in his soft tenor voice.

“Fine,” I replied. I had arrived a couple minutes early.

On his way to the wingback chairs, he passed the picture, glanced at it and sighed.

“I know,” I said. “It really doesn’t belong in here.”

He looked around. “Oo. It doesn’t.” He shook his head and shrugged. “That’s not why it’s here anyway.”

He sighed again and moved a pink Wedgwood vase a microscopic bit towards the center of the table between the two wingbacks. He noticed my puzzled look.

“A sixteenth of an inch can mean the difference between an intact vase and me paying for one,” he explained. “Mrs. S. totally has to be that tough. It’s like she’d never get through the house if everything wasn’t exactly where she knew it was gonna be.”

“Oh.” I still didn’t understand, but I decided Mrs. Sperling would enlighten me.

“By the way, my name’s Glen.” He smiled.

“I’m Donna.”

“I know. You told me when you came in.”

“Oh. That’s right.”

I heard a quick clicking sound from the hallway and turned towards it. A yellow Labrador retriever trotted into the room. Mrs. Sperling had asked me if I liked dogs, which I do.

“Eleanor,” Glen addressed the dog. “You’re supposed to be upstairs.”

The Lab cocked her head at me.

“It’s alright, Glen,” called Mrs. Sperling’s voice, pleasant and well-bred, even at a higher volume.

Eleanor approached me. I held out my hand for her to sniff. She seemed to approve. I scratched her throat.

“She wanted to meet Donna,” Mrs. Sperling continued as she entered the room.

She was of average height. Her elegantly tailored pale blue suit covered a somewhat padded figure. She had dark blonde hair with wisps of gray running through it, cut into what they used to call a wedge. There was something very graceful about the way she moved, which covered up how fast she did it.

She smiled knowingly at Glen. “Are you also interested in joining us?”

“For sure,” Glen replied. His attitude towards his boss was respectful but relaxed and friendly. “I mean, a new roommate and all.”

“Very well. By the way, the hall lamp…”

“Oh!” he groaned. “I’m really trying!”

“There was no damage done this time, fortunately. And don’t worry about it. You’re much further along than your predecessor was when she left, and she’d worked here five years.” She turned and addressed the air next to Glen. “So, you’re Donna Brechter.”

“Yes.”

She shifted to face me. There was something not quite right about her eyes.

“I’m Delilah Sperling,” she said and stepped forward to shake my hand.

I closed in and took hers. “It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Sperling.”

“The pleasure is mutual. Should I have Glen show you around, or do you have any questions?”

“Not really.” I looked around a little nervously.

Mrs. Sperling chuckled. “You’re wondering who I am and if I’m on the right side of the law.”

“No!” I blushed. “Well, a little. It just seemed weird that you were satisfied with a phone interview, that you didn’t want to see me first.”

“I said it would be pointless.” Mrs. Sperling seemed to be enjoying some joke that I had missed. Even Glen was in on it. “But if you think it’s that important, why don’t you describe yourself.”

“How?”

“Physically, your appearance.”

That stumped me. After all, I was standing right in front of her. Then it dawned on me. Her eyes weren’t quite right. The left one was clouded over and unfocused. The right eye looked inward and twitched steadily.

“Sure.” I took a deep breath. “I’m five-eight, one hundred and twenty pounds. I’ve got brown hair, blue eyes. My hair’s real long, down to my waist. I’ve got very long arms, also. Frankly, if I could only use one word to describe myself, that would be it: long.”

Mrs. Sperling chuckled. “Indeed. I believe you said you are a dancer?”

“Only when it doesn’t interfere with my work here,” I said quickly.

“I doubt it will. But why chauffeuring?”

“I heard the money was good, and I like to drive. I don’t mind odd hours, either.”

“Excellent.” She smiled. “Not that I expect there’ll be many of them. I lead a quieter life than most of my peers.”

Glen snickered.

“I do lead a quieter life,” Mrs. Sperling insisted.

“You just don’t party,” said Glen.

Mrs. Sperling sighed and turned back to me. “The picture on the easel. Would you try to describe it for me?”

I looked at it carefully. “Well, it’s a print, a real good one. Um. It’s a picture of a woman with her hair pinned up and wearing a necklace and nothing else. The picture stops at her waist. Um. Do you mind if I ask how much you can see, and how long you’ve been that way?”

Her eyebrow lifted. “I am completely blind and have been since birth. Why do you ask?”

I swallowed. “I just wanted to know if color meant anything to you.”

“A valid question. Color does have meaning, but I suspect not in quite the same way it would for you. For me, blue is water or cold ice. Red is blood, warm and sticky.”

“Yeah. I think I got it. Um. The woman’s skin is white, like a crisp sheet. She’s very sharply defined with black lines… Um, like a narrow rail. The style is almost realistic, maybe like the difference between an ancient Greek sculpture and something from the twentieth century. The necklace is burgundy, like wine, and so are her lips. Her eyes are purple like velvet or flowers. The background is grayish blue, almost a gunmetal color. Surrounding the whole thing is a border that’s gray like satin. The bottom border is much wider than the rest, and it has Niedeman written on it in black.”

“That’s sufficient.” Mrs. Sperling seemed to be laughing. “You did very well, Donna. Do you think you can continue along those lines for me?”

“Sure.”

“This shall work out better than I thought. That picture is a limited-edition serigraph by the late artist, Hans Niedeman. He was the American-born son of German immigrants and only died roughly two years ago. Since that time, his widow released a series of fifteen limited edition commemorative serigraphs of his work. This is HN6. Glen obtained it the other day through a special arrangement.”

“He got a good deal?” I asked.

“Not really. It’s a fake.”

“Oh.” I grimaced as Glen sighed.

“It’s an excellent forgery,” continued Mrs. Sperling. “I’m told the counterfeiter even got the texture right. But genuine Niedeman serigraphs have a distinctive smell that this one does not.” She paused for a moment. “Do you have any further questions?”

“No.”

“Would you care to see your rooms?”

“Unless you’ve got someplace you want to go first.”

“Yes, I think I would prefer to.” She nodded. “Thank you. After you sign your W-2s and insurance papers, please help Glen wrap the Niedeman. We are going to confront Mr. Joshua Stein.”

“The gentleman who sold Glen the Niedeman?” I cocked a hopeful grin at her.

Her eyebrow lifted and she smiled. “Yes.”

The paperwork didn’t take long to fill out. I was happy to be employed, and it looked like the job would be a lot of fun, not to mention the major advantage of moving out of my folks’ place. My parents wanted me out. Well, I was twenty-six, the oldest, and the only one of my siblings still living at home.

Glen appeared with a long sheet of brown wrapping paper. It was a bit of a struggle getting the paper around the frame. The picture was more awkward than heavy. Mrs. Sperling entered the room as we finished, Eleanor at her side in the traditional harness.

“Shall we be going?” she asked. She handed me a full keychain. “Here are your keys, Donna. We’ll go ahead and take the DeVille. We don’t want to be too intimidating. Those keys are on the end of the ring, on the left side.”

“Thank you.”

The chain was a brass half-ring, with a large ball on one end, and a two-inch chain dangling from the other. The car was a tan four-door Cadillac DeVille with a computerized dashboard. The darned thing even talked to me, reminding me to put on my seat belt.

Mrs. Sperling sat up front with me, and Glen sat in the back with Eleanor. There’s always plenty of traffic in L.A., even in Beverly Hills, however, that morning it was lighter than normal. We made good time.

It was a gorgeous November day, with brilliant blue skies, and crisp nippy air. It had been cold the past few nights. The days didn’t warm up that much, either. We’d had rain the week before, and the nearby mountains were sporting white tops.

The studio we wanted was in the Rodeo Drive district, a couple blocks over from Rodeo, itself. The building was at the end of the block. It was a tan brick edifice with three stories that had been built sometime in the 1940s, I guessed. There was a door built into the corner leading into a narrow foyer with a spiral staircase in front of an elevator, and another glass-fronted door leading into the gallery. That door was locked.

“That’s odd,” mused Mrs. Sperling.

I shivered. It was surprisingly cold in the foyer.

“It should be open,” Glen said. “It was yesterday.”

I pressed against the glass with shaded eyes. “It’s not today. There’s no one in there, and no lights on. Wait. I think there’s a light coming from the back.”

“Then that’s where we’ll go.” Mrs. Sperling turned and swung her arm in front of her. “Eleanor, forward.”

We went around the corner to the alley that ran behind the block. The building’s back door was easy to find. It was open, but not to the studio. That door was next to a flight of stairs that led into the rest of the building.

“Hello?” Mrs. Sperling called. She lightly felt along the wall and tried the studio door. It was locked tight. She banged on it. “Hello?”

“Hey! Who the hell’s down there?” The voice came from outside and above.

Mrs. Sperling, Eleanor, Glen and I stumbled over each other going outside.

“Excuse us, sir,” Mrs. Sperling addressed the roof. “We’re looking for Mr. Stein.”

A round head of dark curly hair appeared over the edge.

“You are? Why? The building’s closed.”

“It is?” Mrs. Sperling asked. “We were just out front, and it appears there’s a light on in the back. Could it be that Mr. Stein is here after all?”

“A light, huh.” The head disappeared. A few seconds later we heard bumping feet on the stairs, and the head with the rest of its body arrived. He was short and paunchy and wearing a Twisted Sister t-shirt with faded 501 jeans.

“We’d be open, but there was a big problem yesterday afternoon,” he said going through a set of keys. “Uh, power failure.” He looked up at us. “I’m Kyle Hoffman, the building manager.”

He chose a key and opened the door. Mrs. Sperling went in first. She sniffed and frowned. Eleanor growled softly, then whined. I stepped in and looked around.

“He’s not here,” I said, shivering again. It wasn’t any warmer in the gallery back room.

“I think he may be.” Mrs. Sperling had a strange, grim half-smile on her face as if the situation both excited and repulsed her.

Glen pushed his way in. “Look!” He pointed. “An HN6!” He scrambled over to the middle of the room, where there was a table with a long, flat wooden box on it. Above it was hanging the Niedeman serigraph. “We’ve got him… Oh, my God!”

Glen came reeling back, his face a pale green color. I foolishly went to see what had gotten him that way. I came back the same color.

“I assume you’ve discovered why the studio is not open,” Mrs. Sperling said.

“Oh, you betcha,” I groaned. “He’s awful red, but I think he’s dead.”