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.

Anne Louise Bannon

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