mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Nineteen

Glen backed up against the wall across the hallway to his room, white faced and uttering the chilling screams. He half-pointed into his room. I saw something dark writhing on the floor. Without thinking, I ducked in and pulled the door shut.

“S-s-sna… S-s-s-snakes!” Glen squeaked out. With the immediate threat removed, his screams reduced themselves to gasps.

“Were you bit?” Mrs. Sperling asked with calm concern.

Glen shook his head, still gasping.

“He’s as white as a ghost!” exclaimed Phil. He slid under Glen’s right arm. “We’d better get him sat down.”

I slid under Glen’s other arm and we maneuvered him down the hall into the living room.

“He doesn’t look good, Aunt Delilah,” said Phil as we sat Glen, still gasping, on the couch. “You got some smelling salts?”

“I think a paper bag would be more effective,” answered Mrs. Sperling.

“I’ve got one in my room.” I jumped up and ran back.

As I switched on the light, I stopped. I didn’t see anything, but I went in cautiously. The bag was on the escritoire. I poked at it and snapped back. Nothing. I gingerly tugged at it. It came free without anything flashing at me. I took it and hurried back to the living room.

Mrs. Sperling sat on the couch next to Glen and rubbed his back as he gasped for air. I rolled the bag back and handed it to her. She put it to his face.

“It’s alright, Glen. You’re safe,” she whispered.

“How the hell should I know what kind?” Phil yelled into the phone. “We didn’t stick around to examine them… Frankly, I don’t think knocking on the door and asking is going to get much of an answer, and I’m sure as hell not opening that door… Just assume they’re poisonous, will you?”

Slowly, Glen got his breathing under control. Sobs replaced the gasps, and Glen buried his head in Mrs. Sperling’s shoulder.

“I’m scared to death of snakes,” he sniffed.

“How many did you see?” Mrs. Sperling asked.

“There were two of them.”

“What exactly happened? From the time you came home.”

“I said hi to Phil and said he could wait for Donna in the house. He said he’d wait for her in the driveway. I went in and went to the bathroom, then to my room. There was one on the desk and one on the floor. The floor one came at me. I don’t think he got me, though. I just got out of there fast as I could.”

“Snakes usually hibernate this time of year. He was probably slow and sleepy.” Mrs. Sperling’s hands examined Glen’s shoe. “There are two puncture holes here on the toe.”

I had the loafer and sock off in less than a second.

“His foot’s fine,” I sighed with relief.

“You’re very lucky,” said Mrs. Sperling.

“I don’t want to think about it,” Glen wailed. He swore. “I must look like an ass, crying like a baby.”

“Not at all, dear.” Mrs. Sperling rocked him. “It’s an understandable phobia, and with the shock and the narrow escape, tears are more than justified. Better to get it out than more firmly entrench the fear by holding your emotions in.”

“It takes a lot more guts to express it,” added Phil, who had just hung up. “The police will be here in a minute, with a poisonous snake crew as soon as they can find one. The jackasses. They wanted me to be sure the snakes were poisonous first.”

“Given the rarity of the specialty needed, I suppose it’s not entirely unwarranted,” sighed Mrs. Sperling. “It is rather incredible that poisonous snakes should be found loose in a house located in a crowded neighborhood. Glen, do you think any of your friends would go to such an extreme to play a joke on you?”

“No.”

“I don’t think so, either. This could be considered a warning.”

“But why Glen?” I asked.

“His is the only open window in the house.”

“Aunt Delilah, maybe you guys oughta go to a hotel tonight,” suggested Phil.

“We’ll see what happens when the police arrive. If this was a warning, then I expect the miscreant will give us some time not to act upon it. Furthermore, he’ll need time to develop a plan.”

The door bell rang. I got up to get it, but Mrs. Sperling held me back and sent Phil instead.

It was the police, two uniformed officers and a detective who knew Mrs. Sperling. They took our statements, and looked at the closed door to Glen’s room. Mrs. Sperling sent Phil and me into the kitchen to make herb tea for everyone to drink while we waited for the snake crew to arrive.

“Are you okay?” Phil asked as I filled a kettle with water.

“I suppose,” I sighed. “I am feeling a little creepy crawly, but I agree with Mrs. Sperling that running is pointless. I think it’s better to take a stand and show we won’t be cowed.”

“Not if it gets you killed. I think I’m going to spend the night. Someone ought to stand guard.”

“You’re crazy, Phil. Is there a teapot around here? I thought I saw a nice ceramic one… Oh, here it is. If you’re going to spend the night, you’d better ask Mrs. Sperling. It’s her house.”

“I will,” Phil replied belligerently.

“Fine. Will you help me get some cups out and on this tray. Oh, and let’s put these cookies out. Mrs. Sperling likes the arrowroot biscuits.”

It was another ten minutes before the water boiled. Phil and I brought two trays and the teapot into the living room just as the snake crew arrived. They were actually an animal control team, one of whose members specialized in handling snakes. He was dressed in heavy boots, gloves and a loose canvas jumpsuit, and carried a forked stick with a loop of rope hanging off the end. His partner handed him a burlap bag, and the two went back to Glen’s room. They came out a few minutes later with a squirming sack and few nice words.

“Diamondbacks,” said the snake handler.

“Those are rattlesnakes.” Mrs. Sperling looked surprised. “We didn’t hear anything.”

“They’ve had their rattles cut off.”

“Ah. The Synanon affair. That was some time ago. Our miscreant has some memory.”

“That’s not very encouraging,” I grumbled.

The snake handler gave his sack to his partner, then beckoned the two uniformed officers.

“We’d better search the house. One or two could have escaped the room.”

Glen let out a strangled little moan. I grabbed the paper bag lest he start hyperventilating again. He calmed himself and I relaxed. It was another hour before the search was over. It had been very thorough and nothing was found. Even Glen was reassured. By the time everyone had left, he was walking around and his color had returned.

“I say it’s high time we were in bed,” said Mrs. Sperling. “Glen, why don’t you sleep upstairs in the guest room tonight?”

“I’d totally like that,” he sighed in relief.

“Fine. Donna, would you please fetch his nightclothes and anything else he might need?”

“Sure. Glen?”

“Just my pajamas. They’re under my pillow.”

“Aunt Delilah, I think I’d better stick around,” said Phil. “I don’t have anything to do but sleep tomorrow, and I can keep an eye on things just in case.”

“It really isn’t necessary, Phillip. But if it will make you feel better, you may.”

I left to get Glen’s pajamas and was back in an instant. Shortly after, I was in my sleep t-shirt, heading for bed. I don’t like admitting it, but I was scared. I knew the animal control people had searched every nook and cranny. They’d even gone through my bed linens. But something in the back of my mind kept whispering “What if..?”

I heard Phil pacing in the living room. I shut my door and went to bed. Alright. I did leave my light on, and I did poke through the bed linens, and I searched under the bed, and I went through my closet. But I was scared.

I awoke around eight thirty the next morning. Silence reigned. It was eerie, given the night before. I couldn’t go back to sleep. I got up and took a shower and got dressed. I went past the living room to get to the kitchen. Phil’s black hit-tops sat next to the couch. A loud rumbling growl broke the calm of the morning.

I looked closer and saw Phil sprawled on his back along the length of the couch with his lower legs falling off the end. His mouth opened and another monstrous snore escaped. I giggled.

I went on to the kitchen. The rumble came again, softer but still distinct enough to be remarked upon, even in the kitchen.

Mrs. Osgood bustled in.

“Something is funny?” she asked. Phil rumbled again. “What in Heaven’s name is that? The pipes are bad again?”

I laughed. “It’s Phil DuPre. He’s asleep on the couch. We had quite a time here last night.”

Mrs. Osgood’s eyes twinkled. “So that is why you are smiling.”

“No!” I blushed, then told her about the snakes.

“In Jamaica, we say that is bad magic. But Mrs. Sperling, she is powerful good woman. No evil can harm us in her house.” She took off her coat and hung it in the broom closet as was her custom. Mrs. Sperling has suggested she use the hall closet, but Mrs. Osgood prefers the broom closet for reasons known only to her. Though usually merry and good-tempered, Mrs. Osgood has her temperamental side, and all of us in Mrs. Sperling’s house would fain cross her.

Glen appeared next, in good spirits in spite of the previous night’s trauma.

“How long before brunch, Mrs. Osgood?” he asked.

“Eleven, as usual.”

“That’s an hour from now.” Glen looked at me. I was at the table drinking orange juice and looking at Facebook on my phone. “Is it okay if I make some toast?”

“Certainly.” Mrs. Osgood made carrot bits faster than a Cuisinart.

Glen dodged her gracefully, fetching bread, butter and homemade jam from the refrigerator. A muffled obscenity emerged from the living room. A minute later, Phil wandered in, his hair tousled and eyes blinking.

“I fell asleep,” he grumbled.

“No kidding,” I replied. “They probably heard you snoring down at the Beverly Hills police station.”

Phil yawned. “I must have been beat. I don’t normally do that unless I’m really tired.”

“How would you know? You live alone.”

“I haven’t always. Splice-Man has some tales that could stand your hair on end. At least he claims that’s what I did to him a couple times. Is Aunt Delilah up yet?”

“I don’t know,” said Glen. “I didn’t hear anything when I got up, and I showered down here. And, Donna, could you please quit throwing your shavers into the sink when you’re done with them? You totally missed again and I almost sliced my foot up.”

“I don’t want to slice myself up in the shower. I’ll try and be more careful.”

“Maybe we’d better check on her,” said Phil.

Glen looked up at the ceiling. “There goes the shower now. She must be okay.”

“Must be,” sighed Phil.

“Would you like some orange juice and toast?” I asked. “It’ll be a while before the rest of it’s ready.”

“No thanks.” Phil stretched and got out his keys. “I want to get showered and changed myself. I’ll be back in a jiffy. Where are my shoes? Oh.”

He left for the living room and came back shod a minute later. He kissed me good bye and took off.

Carrot bran muffins, salmon souffle, steamed zucchini, and buttered new potatoes steamed on the table when Phil got back.

“You look a lot better,” I said as he walked in.

“I probably smell a lot better, too.” He sat down. “It looks terrific, Mrs. Osgood.”

“Thank you.”

“Where’s Aunt Delilah?”

“Right here.” Mrs. Sperling walked in wearing a dark brown shaggy sweater and black slacks.

“Oh no,” sighed Glen. “Did those policemen mess up your closet, Mrs. Sperling?”

“I don’t believe so. These are my black pants, aren’t they?” Her fingers slid around to her back, lifting up the sweater and feeling under the waistband.

“Yes. But you’re wearing your brown sweater. Black and brown don’t go together.”

Mrs. Sperling froze. “That’s right. They don’t. Glen, what color socks would you wear with brown pants?”

“Brown.”

“Not black?”

Glen made a disgusted face. “Yuck.”

“And what would you say about someone who wore black socks with brown pants?”

“I’d say he totally had no taste.”

“Phillip, would you say the same?”

“Perhaps not in those words, but yeah.”

“And yet we know that Mr. Stein was particular about his appearance and a stylish dresser. But Mr. Hoffman wasn’t. In fact, he wore white socks with a suit to Mr. Stein’s funeral.”

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“Well, I do, at long last.” Mrs. Sperling chuckled. “My subconscious was certainly at work when I got dressed this morning. That was the other glaringly stupid mistake that I was wondering about. Now the bird fits in perfectly, and my goodness, the pajamas, too!”

Glen gave up at that point, rolling his eyes heavenward.

“Donna, we’ll need to call that gentleman in that lone occupied office in the building that Mr. Stein’s gallery was in,” Mrs. Sperling said as she picked up the phone and started dialing. “Good morning, Sergeant, I’ve got it… Yes, definitely… I think two would be good. I’ve got to double check some of the records… You did? Excellent… Please… The box… A receipt with date and time? How utterly perfect… The dead bird, too. Good. You may want it autopsied. It’s pretty conclusive as it is, but it could cinch things in court… I’ll be having something double checked in a minute, but it’s far simpler than we originally thought, and yet more complicated… The case against him is still a little circumstantial, but it’s the best I can do. At the very least, we have enough to hold him then get a search warrant… Very good, then. We’ll see you at two.” She hung up with a very pleased look on her face.

I read her the number for the office she wanted. The call was relatively short, with most of the discussion taking place on the other end. Mrs. Sperling I see’d a lot, then hung up looking pretty well satisfied with herself.

She instructed me to pull the Rabbit around, with the top down.

“It’s pretty cloudy out there,” I warned.

“We’ll risk it,” she said, smiling.

She hurried off to get Eleanor’s harness.

Glen and Phil came along for the ride. Phil rode up front with me, while Glen squeezed in back with Mrs. Sperling and Eleanor. From Mrs. Sperling’s gay mood you would have thought we were off to a party.

Sergeant Michaelson was yet again waiting for us.

“I thought I’d save you the trouble,” he told Mrs. Sperling. “I checked those reports, and you were right. He made a stop on July seventh.”

“Which corresponds exactly with the date Hoffman left the Hendricks building. Perfect.”

“He also stopped on the day of the murder. I got that management company to send me a copy of Hoffman’s application. Guess who Hoffman named as a reference?”

“Even better. The District Attorney should be pleased.”

“Hi, Sergeant.” Willoughby came up, in civvies and looking rested.

“I’m glad you’re here, Officer Willoughby,” said Mrs. Sperling pleasantly. “I wanted to double check your story.”

“I thought you did.” Willoughby frowned.

“Not the Hoffman story. The one you wrote in your report on July seventh of this year. You stopped and left your car to investigate something suspicious in the alley behind the art gallery owned by Mr. Edgar Hendricks. You reported back ten minutes later, saying you hadn’t found anything except a nesting cat.”

“Yeah. I think I remember that. So?”

“I believe that nesting cat you saw was Mr. Kyle Hoffman removing art works from Mr. Hendricks gallery. It’s strange how Mr. Hendricks’ overload of back orders ceased to increase after that date, and even stranger how Mr. Hoffman suddenly quit and went to work for the company that manages Mr. Stein’s building. Would you care to elaborate?”

Willoughby remained cool, but I could see he was scared.

“No, I wouldn’t,” he replied, folding his arms in front of him.

“I didn’t think you would, so I will. Mr. Hendricks began getting full orders of prints. Mr. Stein also received full orders, but several of the prints he sold turned out to be counterfeit. They were mostly inexpensive serigraphs and lithos. That’s why they went unnoticed until my houseboy, Glen, here, purchased an HN6 by Hans Niedeman, and I discovered it was a fake. Phillip told me that Mr. Stein knew about the counterfeits. You had already engineered the counterfeiting scheme, being careful to make sure it was Kyle Hoffman who contacted Mr. Fred Gonzagos and purchased his work, and Mr. Hoffman who switched the serigraphs. It was quite simple to remain the brains behind the operation. Until Mr. Hoffman discovered Mr. Stein’s body in his studio. You see, there was a carbon monoxide leak in the forced air system late the day before that forced Mr. Hoffman to shut the building down while he tried to fix the problem. The owner of Best Rentals left promptly. We have to assume that Mr. Stein was not in his gallery when Mr. Hoffman shut the building down. And we have to assume that Mr. Hoffman was not aware that Mr. Stein was sleeping in the back room of the gallery, thanks to having left his wife but a few days before. Mr. Stein had apparently returned to his gallery with his evening’s dinner and finished most of it. He was probably beginning to feel woozy and sleepy. Carbon monoxide generally acts fast. He changed into his pajamas and fell, striking the back of his head. Early the next morning, Hoffman flagged you down, Officer Willoughby. He was panicking. Stein was dead, and Mr. Hoffman would lose his job, putting both himself and your schemes in peril. You decided to make it appear as though Mr. Stein been dumped there after having been killed in a car in someone’s garage, which is what we indeed thought. You had Mr. Hoffman air out the studio and set up the counterfeiting scene. Mr. Hoffman failed miserably there, setting up insufficient equipment and a genuine serigraph. That really didn’t matter in the long run. However, there were two problems. Either you or Mr. Hoffman apparently noticed that Mr. Stein’s parakeet had died, as it would be expected to do quite quickly when the carbon monoxide laden exhaust came into the room. I’m not sure when one of you retrieved the dead bird, but Mr. Hoffman did purchase another, unfortunately leaving the receipt, with date and time stamped on it, and the carry home box in his van for us to find later. There was also the pajama situation. You told Hoffman to change Mr. Stein into regular clothes. Hoffman, taking no chances took the pajamas and all of Mr. Stein’s other nightclothes, and disposed of them, assuming we’d notice that the one set of pajamas were missing, and thus discover what had really happened. Mr. Hoffman made one mistake, though. He knew that a stylish man like Mr. Stein would wear dark socks with dark pants, but he put black socks on with brown pants, something we know Mr. Stein would never have done.” She looked at Sergeant Michaelson. “That’s what took so long to come out for me. I had forgotten that black and brown are not generally compatible colors.”

“Something I believe we can’t fault you for,” Sergeant Michaelson replied with a grim smile.

“In any case, Mr. Hoffman also put the purchased bird into the birdcage, and not willing to make the same mistake again, put the cage next to the window, so as not to poison the new bird. All was ready in the studio, and Mr. Hoffman went up to the roof to finish the repairs to the vent system.”

“Okay,” said Willoughby. “I can see Hoffman doing that. But I don’t see where you come off saying I put him up to it.”

“Somebody had to be doing Hoffman’s thinking for him. The plan was too subtle, too refined, and it was generally acknowledged that Mr. Hoffman was not terribly bright, although handy with environmental systems. In addition, a young man sold an art dealer in Hollywood five genuine Niedeman serigraphs invoking Fred Gonzagos’ name, even though he was in Mexico at the time. The man was described as tall and light-haired, which you cannot deny you are.”

“No, but look at your houseboy, and Mr. Director there.”

“True, it’s a common description, but it does not fit any friends of Mr. Gonzagos, at least none that he’s recommended to Dolores Carmine. You obviously knew about Mr. Gonzagos, even if he did not know about you. You probably found his record and recommended that Mr. Hoffman seek him out. Then you sold the serigraphs when you decided that they might be damaging to you. It’s an interesting coincidence, too, that Mr. Stein’s locker at his health club was cleared out by a tall light-haired young man the day I handed in a report to Sergeant Michaelson, which you saw, and in which I mentioned a curiosity about Mr. Stein’s toiletries at the afore mentioned club. Then there was Hoffman’s death, which also occurred the same day. Your story of the punks in the apartment fit the evidence perfectly. Too perfectly. Everything was exactly as the police could expect to find it, as you’ve undoubtedly found it many times. But there were no physical traces left behind, such as a smudged print, or a torn button. The only people who leave the scene of the crime that clean are professional burglars, and they wouldn’t bother with a place like Hoffman’s. But what really tipped me off was Mrs. Parrish’s story. She said when she saw you, you just went in. Later she assumed you had broken the door in because it was broken, but not at first. Her eyes hadn’t fooled her the first time. Hoffman had admitted you. So I knew you had lied. I caught you again when you said the punks went down the fire escape. Perhaps Mr. Hoffman mentioned leaving it open. But you made the same mistake my chauffeur did. You assumed the fire escape was a balcony affair when it was actually a window that opened wide enough to facilitate escape. You also referred to the corpse, saying ‘there was Kyle.’ indicating you knew him much better than you claimed.”

Willoughby swallowed. “It’s circumstantial. It’ll never hold water in court.”

“I’m sorry, Willoughby,” said Sergeant Michaelson. “We’ve got enough evidence to swear out a search warrant for your apartment.”

“You can’t!” Willoughby’s face went white.

“Where he will find all the other stolen artworks from various galleries and homes in the area that you have managed to acquire through all your various schemes,” finished Mrs. Sperling.

Sergeant Michaelson sighed as he read. “Willoughby, you have the right to remain silent…”

Essays, general essay

Learning How To Write the Future

science fiction, time travel, how to write the future

Last year, as I was writing Time Enough, the sequel to my time travel novel, But World Enough and Time, I was writing along at a great clip. Was even ahead of where I was supposed to be when everything came to a screeching halt. I had hit the section that takes place in the future and was lost. The only way out was to teach myself how to write the future.

Now, that might not sound like that big a deal – and it sort of wasn’t. After all, what I essentially was doing was world building. But I had to build on our world today to make it make sense, and I had to do it in a way that was particularly conscious.

That was a little weird for me. Usually, I’m more of a natural writer. In fact, when I try to impose motivations on my characters or set up themes, it almost never works. If I let my characters do what they need to do, then ask why they did something, I get a much more organic result.

For example, I was working on the first draft of my upcoming spring release, Death of the City Marshal, and I had a scene where the bad guy attacks Maddie Wilcox in the dead of night to warn her off investigating. He’s got her in the dead of night with a knife to her throat. In my head, I realized it didn’t entirely make sense. Why doesn’t he just kill her? And in the asking why, the killer and his motivations became much clearer to me and the character came alive.

It didn’t work that way writing Time Enough. For some reason, not having a clear idea of how the future looked made the plot elements really hard to come together. I knew what I wanted to happen – to a degree. But it wasn’t enough to drive the story.

But how do I come up with a future that makes sense? In a way, being a history buff really helped. The thing with reading about history is that you see how things develop over time. So, if I was going to write a future that made sense, I had to look at where things are now.

I also thought about it and realized that our world tends toward evolution. So while there had to be some cataclysms, because that does happen, the essential problem driving the experiment in bringing a woman from the distant past to the future, had to be one that had evolved. 

What I came up with is far too complicated to go into here. And, yes, I had to tweak a few things in But World Enough and Time, which is why I left it as an ebook and didn’t put out a print version. I suspect that when I get to writing All the Time in the World (the last in the time travel trilogy), I’ll have to re-tweak things in Time Enough.

While I am a strong advocate of trusting your process, there are times when your process needs a metaphorical kick in the pants. And sometimes working against your process is exactly what your story needs.  I won’t necessarily do impose a world on my characters again. In fact, I pretty much abandoned detailed outlining and fussing with motivations for the third section of Time Enough. But learning how to write the future taught me as much about building a story as it did about building a world.

mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Eighteen

“Why me?” Glen asked piteously when Mrs. Sperling presented him with her plan.

“Because of those of us immediately concerned with this case, only you and Phillip DuPre have not been seen by Mr. Gonzagos. Phillip is busy, and has already been in two fights. It’s your turn to do some work. After all, you were the one who got me involved when you purchased that forgery.” Mrs. Sperling was being unbearably reasonable.

“I’m no good at fighting,” sighed Glen.

“Phil isn’t either,” I said.

“Here is the address.” Mrs. Sperling handed him a piece of paper. “Go straight there. We’ll be waiting for you at the Beverly Hills police station.”

Glen left with all the enthusiasm of a former hippie signing up for selective service. I took a deep breath and looked at Mrs. Sperling.

“He’s awful scared,” I said. “Think he’ll be able to pull it off?”

“I wouldn’t have sent him if I didn’t.”

The phone rang and I went ahead answered it.

“Donna, just the person I want to talk to,” said Phillip’s merry voice.

“Is… Um… Your video cast?”

“Yep. The producer is haggling it out with the agents. How does dinner and a movie sound tonight?”

“How does waiting around for the boss to finish her dinner sound? Mrs. Sperling is booked to go to friends. I’m driving.”

“Hm. Let me think about this. Where’s she dining?”

“At the Delgados, at six-thirty.”

“Okay. Leave it to me. But fear not. I shan’t distract you from your duties.”

“You’d better not. I’ve got to get going. Mrs. Sperling has an appointment with Sergeant Michaelson in a little bit.”

“Fine. See you tonight.”

I hung up, wondering.

At the police station, I was a little surprised to see Officer Willoughby waiting with Sergeant Michaelson.

“He’s here, Mrs. Sperling,” said the sergeant.

“Officer Willoughby, I truly appreciate your taking your personal time to come in and talk to me.”

“My pleasure, ma’am.” He was lying through his teeth about that one. But then, considering what shift he worked, I couldn’t really blame him.

“As I believe the sergeant told you, there were a couple points about Wednesday’s incident that I believe the Hollywood police confused. Perhaps if you could tell me exactly what happened in your own words.”

“Well, as I was ending my shift, Hoffman came up to me and told me he knew something about the counterfeiting that had been going on at the Stein gallery. I thought it might be important, so I agreed to go over to his house later that afternoon, after I’d gotten some sleep, and he’d gotten off work. Now here’s where I goofed. I should have told Sergeant Michaelson about it, but well, I didn’t ’cause I wanted to be a hero.”

“That’s perfectly understandable. Do go on.”

“Well, I got there, and knocked on the door. That’s when I saw the landlady coming from the back. Then I heard this thud, like something falling over, and a groan. So I busted the door in. I was about to identify myself when this huge kid in a mask came at me. He had a friend a little to the back, also masked.”

“How did you know your attacker was a young man when he was masked?”

Willoughby squirmed. “I-I don’t know. You just do sometimes. I guess he sounded young.”

“Ah. That would be it. Please, continue.”

“Well, we grappled a bit. I landed a good one on his jaw, but he took it well. He came back even harder, and knocked me up against the wall. That’s when he and his friend ran for the back. I went after, but I didn’t get there fast enough. The last I saw of them, they were going down the fire escape. I went back into the front room, and there was Kyle under the front window.”

“What did you do then?”

“I checked him and he was gone. Then I went downstairs and called Hollywood from the landlady’s place. I figured I’d better not disturb anything in Kyle’s place.”

“How well did you know Mr. Hoffman?”

“I might have seen him around, but I never really spoke with him until that morning.”

“I see. Well, thank you, Officer. You’ve been most kind.”

“That’ll be all, Willoughby,” said Michaelson. He did not like the situation.

“Oh, there you are!” Glen came up, cardboard tube in hand. “I got it. It sure looks real.”

He pulled a HN6, or what looked like one, out of the tube. Mrs. Sperling sniffed.

“Excellent, Glen, you’ve done it again,” she announced.

“Huh?” Glen grimaced.

“Be seeing you folks,” said Willoughby, leaving.

We ignored him.

“You mean it’s another fake?” groaned Glen.

“Quite so. What happened?”

“I got there, and I told him I wanted a HN6. He said he had one. He asked how I found him. I said Kyle Hoffman sent me. He said Kyle ought to know. I looked at the print, and bought it.”

“So we can eliminate Mr. Gonzagos, except as the artist behind the counterfeits.” Mrs. Sperling was pleased.

“But how?” I asked.

“Our mysterious fair-haired boy had real ones to sell. Mr. Stein only had fakes. Therefore, all of Mr. Stein’s genuine serigraphs had already been exchanged, long ago, I would expect. Mr. Stein had recently obtained a new set of serigraphs, which is why Glen was able to get one. And those, too, were exchanged, with Mr. Gonzagos receiving the payment Wednesday, and deciding to go to visit his family with the cash while he had it. Then Dolores got a set of genuine Niedemans from a friend of Mr. Gonzagos, who knew nothing of him. Ergo, Mr. Gonzagos merely prints the serigraphs, for which he receives cash, and nothing else. Even if he knew Mr. Stein existed, and vice versa, which I seriously doubt, Mr. Gonzagos would have no reason to kill Mr. Stein, as he represented a form of income.”

“But what about Hoffman?” asked Sergeant Michaelson.

“You know Mr. Gonzagos didn’t kill Mr. Hoffman,” Mrs. Sperling replied. “Besides, Mr. Gonzagos referred to Mr. Hoffman in the present. It would appear Mr. Gonzagos does not yet know Mr. Hoffman is deceased.”

Michaelson shifted. “I suppose. But we still don’t have the evidence, and I still don’t like it.”

“I don’t blame you, Sergeant. It’s very disheartening. However, we cannot ignore the truth because we wish it were otherwise. The evidence is coming. It’s simmering on the back burner, so to speak, and the best I can do is let it find its own way out. I trust a good night’s rest will do it. In the meantime, you know what to do.”

“Oh, Mrs. Sperling, you wanted me to remind you about the bird,” I suddenly added.

“Oh, yes. Thank you, Donna. Sergeant, what became of the bird we found in Mr. Stein’s studio? It was a parakeet, was it not?”

“Yeah, a green one. One of the lab boys took it home for his kid. As far as I know, it’s alive and well.”

“Good.”

“Sergeant!” A young female clerk came up with a small piece of paper. “Hollywood called. They said you might want to know. Central recovered Kyle Hoffman’s van this morning near Union Station.”

Michaelson frowned. “I didn’t know it was stolen.”

“Neither did Hollywood. But Central said it had been hot-wired.”

“Sergeant,” interrupted Mrs. Sperling. “Would you please obtain a list of the van’s contents for me? There could be something significant.”

“Certainly,” he said.

“Thank you, Sergeant. Glen, you’d better leave that print here as evidence. I’ll see you back at the house.”

“Sure.” Glen dropped the tube and hurried out.

Mrs. Sperling and I followed at a more relaxed pace.

“That’s enough of this for today,” she sighed. “I’m going to forget about it, and rest. I’ve been working it too hard, that much is obvious.”

“I thought you said it was critical last night.”

“It is very critical, which is why I’ve overworked it. It happens to all of us sometimes, and the fastest way to get it done is to lay it aside for a while and forget it. The Delgados’ invitation is most timely.”

We went home, first, and Mrs. Sperling answered a few letters to friends while I cleaned my room. Mrs. Sperling and I didn’t change for dinner. It was to be a casual affair. At six-fifteen, I brought the De Ville around.

The Delgados are usually pretty cool about letting me hang around when they are entertaining Mrs. Sperling. But Mrs. Delgado’s mother had invited herself, and she isn’t quite so liberal. So after letting Mrs. Sperling and Eleanor off, I took the car around back and hung out in the kitchen with the cook and the butler, when he wasn’t serving dinner. They were both busy and gossiping amongst themselves, which left me a little out of things. They tried to include me, but I just wasn’t interested in the affair Mrs. Jones’ butler was having with Mrs. Smith’s gardener.

Around seven, someone knocked at the back door. Mimi, the cook, went and got it.

“Well, Mr. DuPre!” she said with pleased surprise. “What brings you back here?”

“Delilah Sperling’s chauffeur,” Phil answered. “We’re sharing a box dinner in the car. Would you be so kind as to let us know when Mrs. Sperling wants us?”

“Sure.” Mimi looked at me as if she couldn’t wait to tell the butler.

“Don’t worry about interrupting anything,” I told her as I left. “It’ll just be a friendly affair.”

Phil grinned as he swept me out the rest of the way.

“You haven’t eaten yet, I hope,” he said.

“Mimi was going to fix me a plate after the others were settled.”

“Perfect.” Phil got a picnic basket and a bottle of wine from the Maserati. “Why don’t we dine in the De Ville? It’s got more room.”

“I hope Mrs. Sperling doesn’t mind.”

“How is she going to know?”

“She’ll find a way.”

“I’ll take responsibility. If she doesn’t accept that, then I’ll have to hire you as my chauffeur.”

“Hm.” I unlocked the car, then opened the back door. “I must be nuts climbing into a back seat with you.”

I wasn’t really. Dinner came out of a basket that Phil had gotten from a restaurant. There was pate, and endive and spinach salad, then creamy vegetable soup, potatoes Lyonnaise, fresh steamed broccoli, and veal aux fines herbes provencal. He’d also picked up some vintage Chandon, brie and white chocolate chunk cookies from Trader Joe’s, a local discount wine and gourmet food store. Phil has a definite cheap streak. We ate, then cleared dishes and snuggled.

One factor we didn’t count on was that it had been a long week of late hours and early mornings for both of us, and that sitting in a nice warm car does induce drowsiness. I’m not sure when Phil dozed off. I know I’d been asleep for some time when Mimi came banging on the windows. Phil started and cussed. I yawned and blinked.

“She’s ready,” yelled Mimi.

“Who?” I grumbled. “Oh, damn!” I shook the remaining sleep from me.

Phil was already outside the car with the picnic basket. I crawled out.

“I’ll see you over at Aunt Delilah’s.” He kissed me and was gone.

I got in the driver’s seat and brought the De Ville around front. Mrs. Sperling talked with Mrs. Delgado on the drive. I got out and held open the back door. Eventually, they said goodnight, and Mrs. Sperling put Eleanor in the back seat.

“I hope your company wasn’t too bad,” she said as I opened the front passenger door.

“It was very pleasant.” I hurried around to my side.

“It was?” Mrs. Sperling got in, shut the door, then sniffed. I shut my door and busied myself with getting my seat belt buckled and the car started. “I can imagine it was very pleasant. I was wondering why you hadn’t found Mimi and Engle dreadful bores.”

“He surprised me, and after he went to all that trouble…”

“I had a feeling he would. You seem to have dined well.”

“I hope you don’t mind. We were very careful.”

“Why should I care? Eleanor has her paws all over that back seat all the time. What difference is a little food going to make? You’ve been doing an excellent job of keeping this car up, anyway. I’m sure I’d be the last person to notice a stain.”

I giggled. “So there’s no reason to bother you about the salad oil all over the seat.”

“The what?”

“Just teasing.”

Mrs. Sperling laughed.

“I wouldn’t try to put anything past you, anyway,” I said. “There’s no way I could get away with it.”

“That may or may not be encouraging.”

As he promised, Phil was waiting outside when I pulled into the driveway.

“Hi, Donna. Hello, Aunt Delilah.” He dutifully kissed Aunt Delilah’s cheek while I put the De Ville in the garage. “I just stopped by to visit with Donna after she got off duty.”

“After you already spent the evening with her?” Mrs. Sperling asked, and opened the back door.

“I told you she’d find out.” I walked past Phil into the house.

“It was worth a try,” Phil replied.

“Then next time I would recommend cold food and something with a less distinctive smell than fines herbes.” Mrs. Sperling smiled. “Is Glen home?”

“Yeah,” Phil answered. “He drove in just as I did.”

“Good. Donna, would you please put the burglar alarm on? I’m going to bed.”

I was stopped by a series of bloodcurdling screams.

mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Seventeen

The tension was almost unbearable. Phil was meeting that day to cast the video, and I had no idea whether or not I had the job, or given our entanglement, whether I wanted it. Brooding wouldn’t help so I stomped into my bedroom and grabbed my tap shoes. On an impulse, I also grabbed a framed Harvey Edwards print I’d been thinking of hanging in my room.

I stomped into the T.V. room and tossed my shoes next to Glen’s stereo. The walls were covered with his art, mostly pictures of women, and two of his precious Niedemans. I took one down and replaced it with my Harvey Edwards.

It was a fair-sized room, with a wood floor, partially covered by an oriental rug. Along one wall was a series of bookshelves, and two windows. Pillows were scattered about, and there was a big pile in front of the T.V. located in a corner next to the bookshelves. Glen’s super system stereo, complete with digital turntable, radio, boosters, streaming computer and two four-foot-high speakers took up a good portion of the wall opposite the windows. Mirrored tiles had been stuck onto the adjoining wall in patches. A small stack lay on the floor next to it.

Glen had been taking down the tiles because he didn’t like them. I decided I was going to put them back up. I went over and stuck one in a hole. It stuck for about three seconds, then came tumbling out. I just barely caught it.

I sighed. I was going to have to get some glue. I’d ask my father. Dad knows all about all sorts of stuff like that.

I stomped over to the stereo, and got my phone connected. It took me a minute to find the song I wanted. While I was trying, I vented on the poor phone. I finally found the song, put it on pause, and put on my tap shoes.

I warmed up quickly. I wasn’t stressed enough to risk a pulled muscle. I rolled up the carpet, and slammed on the music. The beginning was slow, so I warmed up my ankles with toe taps.

I was ready when the main body of the song started. Facing the mirrors, I went into the relaxed time step. It was a routine I’d learned years and years before. I liked it because it had lots of stomping in it.

About a third of the way through the song, Glen appeared.

“Why are you dancing?” he asked.

“I’m tense about the video.”

“You’re going to ruin the floor with those.”

“I don’t care right now.” I made a mental note to get some masonite pieces to cover the floor when I was tap dancing. I paused for the section where the heavy stomping came in, accompanied by lots of fast shuffles.

Glen watched. Usually anything that isn’t completely modern doesn’t interest him. But I think he was impressed. He waited until the song was over. Breathing heavily, I turned the phone off.

“What was that?” Glen asked.

“‘Anything Goes’ by a genius named Cole Porter. It’s from the show by the same name.”

“I think I’ve heard of it. Where’s Mrs. S?”

“At the Braille Institute until one thirty. She’s giving Delsie Simmons an extended session.”

“Poor Delsie.” Glen started picking at one of the tiles.

“Don’t you touch those!” I snapped.

“I’ve been trying to get them down since I got here.”

“They’re going back up. I live here, too, and I reserve the right to put my influence in also.”

“But they’re awful. The person who put them up had no taste. You should have seen my room before I moved in.”

“Those tiles are practical. With this nice wood floor, and no furniture, I can practice my dancing. That’s why I need the mirror. We can make this room a little studio, and roll out the rug when we want to watch T.V.”

“That rug is going, too.”

“That rug is an antique and worth money.”

“Who’d want it? It’s ugly.”

“It’s a nice looking rug.”

Glen grimaced. “No, it isn’t. I was going to do this room up with director’s chairs to match the floor…”

“No chairs, unless we can fold them up. I need floor space.”

“But it’s totally ugly.”

“I happen to like it.”

“You have no taste.” Glen grinned with lofty airiness.

“I have excellent taste.”

“Not unless it’s mine.”

“Who are you, the arbiter of all taste?”

“Yes.”

I rolled my eyes, and sat down, stretching out.

“Well, Mr. Arbiter, keep in mind, you’re not the only one who lives here. If those tiles come down, and this room gets cluttered with furniture, there’s going to be hell to pay.”

“What are you going to do?”

I just grinned at him. Glen swallowed. I laughed.

He shrugged. “You mean do the room like a dance studio? Yeah, we could do that. It’d look totally rad.”

I took off my tap shoes. “I’d better get going. Mrs. Sperling sent me home to make a whole pile of phone calls.”

“Anything more on the murder?”

“I’m almost positive it was Bistler and Hendricks working together. We’ve just got to get the evidence.”

“How about my Niedeman?”

“I know somebody who’s selling them cheap.”

“Who?”

“Dolores Carmine.”

Glen’s face fell. “She’s out.”

“Speaking of her, Mrs. S. wants you to stick around today. She’s got a job for you.”

Glen shrugged. I went to make my calls.

The first was to the company that had employed Kyle Hoffman. I got handed around three times before I was able to ask my questions.

“This is Miss Browning,” I told Mr. Haggerty from personnel. “I’m calling to verify a credit application one of your employees made to us. His name is Kyle Hoffman.”

“Hoffman? He died two days ago.”

“Oh. Well, just so I can get the record straight, he was employed by your company to manage a building at this address.” I gave him the address of Stein’s gallery. “Is this right?”

“Yes. He’s been with us since July of this year.”

“You wouldn’t have his former place of employment, would you?”

“Let me pull up the file.” There was about a minute’s pause while Mr. Haggerty clicked the keys on his computer. He gave me the address, and the exact date of Hoffman’s departure from his former job and his date of hire there, which I wrote down.

“Thank you, Mr. Haggerty.”

“Um, Miss Browning, pardon me for asking, but your company isn’t going to make a loan to a dead man, is it?”

“I doubt it, Mr. Haggerty. It’d be very hard for him to pay it back. Thanks again.” I hung up fast.

I compared the address I’d written to the business card and smiled. My next call went through right away.

“Mr. Grisom, my name is Elizabeth Barrett, and I’m with Entertainment Plus. We’re a marketing firm for the entertainment industry, and I’m conducting a survey to help determine the mid-week activities of professional adults in the Los Angeles area. Would you mind answering a few questions for me?” I had written the speech down and gone through it with just enough boredom to suggest I’d made this call at least forty times already.

“I suppose.”

“Thank you, sir. I see you’re an attorney in the Beverly Hills area. May I ask your income range? Between thirty to forty thousand?”

“A hundred and fifty thousand last year.”

“Okay, that’s box D. Are you married right now?”

“Yes.”

“Is your wife employed also?”

“Self-employed.”

“Did you just quote me a combined income?”

“No. She’s pulling in another fifty thousand.”

“Okay. Now, could you tell me what you were doing last Wednesday night, the day before yesterday?”

“I was home with my wife.”

“Doing what?”

“Watching T.V.”

“And what were you watching?”

“I don’t remember. Something on P.B.S.”

“How about the Wednesday before that?”

“Oh, geez. What the hell was I doing? Oh. Yeah. Same thing, only I think we rented a movie.”

“Do you remember which one?”

“Uh. No. Sorry. I probably fell asleep halfway through it, anyway.”

“Alright. Is this a usual pattern, sir?”

“Yeah. Doris and I don’t go out much during the week.”

“And that answers my next question. Thank you very much for your time, Mr. Grisom.”

I wasn’t sure if it was necessary, but I called the local Bar Association, as Mrs. Sperling had requested. The information I got was pretty interesting.

“It was years ago,” I told Mrs. Sperling as we drove to Dolores Carmine’s. “And he’s maintained an excellent record since then.”

“Embezzling, eh?”

“But they were never able to prove it. The charges were dropped before it ever went to court. The lady at the Bar Association says she remembers the incident, and she thinks it might have been professional jealousy. She says Grisom’s a terrific lawyer, and not someone you want to be facing in a divorce trial.”

“Which perhaps explains Mr. Montoinne’s caution regarding Ms. Bistler.”

“That and he’s the jealous type.”

“And Grisom’s alibi is not very easily verified, or contested, for that matter. Relaxing at home is too common an occurrence. Sometimes a particularly strong lawyer can break the witness down, but not too often. We shouldn’t count on it.”

“The funny thing is, he didn’t sound flustered at all, or as if he even cared whether or not I knew. If they hadn’t told me about that embezzlement charge, I would have written him off, especially considering Hendricks and Bistler.”

Mrs. Sperling shook her head. “Don’t jump to conclusions, my dear. Something doesn’t quite fit, and it could be the fact that exonerates them. One must be very sure before fixing blame.”

I pulled into a parking space in front of Dolores’s Gallery. We got out and went in. For once, Dolores was in the front. She waited for us with an average sized man with strong Hispanic features, and a huge bushy moustache, and long fly-away hair.

“Here he is, Delilah. He got back in town Wednesday morning,” said Dolores.

Mrs. Sperling nodded. “Where have you been, Mr. Gonzagos?”

“In Mexico,” he answered defensively. “I got family in Mexico City.”

“Are you aware that your trip was rather poorly timed?”

“What you mean?”

“Mr. Gonzagos, the night you were last seen in Los Angeles, a man was murdered. He had been selling forgeries of prints done by the late artist, Hans Niedeman, forgeries I believe to be your work. If you arrived in back in town as Ms. Carmine here says, then you arrived just in time to be available for the murder of a second man who I believe to be the one who exchanged your prints for those of the first victim.”

“I don’t know nothing about no murders, lady.” Gonzagos was scared. “I get mad sometimes, but I don’t kill people.”

“I see.”

“Look, lady, you can say all you like, talk fancy and everything. But I don’t kill people.”

“What airlines were you on, Mr. Gonzagos?”

“Mexicana.”

“Very good, then. I might also add that the second victim was severely beaten in a manner that is suggestive of your drinking habits.”

Gonzagos eyes grew wide, and he darted out. I started after him, but Mrs. Sperling held me back.

“Now you done it, Delilah,” growled Dolores.

“I’m afraid so. I was hoping he would make an error in judgment, but that was not the one I had in mind. Obviously, I am still capable of making mistakes. That’s encouraging. Well, Dolores, thank you for getting him here.”

“Delilah, maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but he says he doesn’t know anything about sending a friend to me with some Niedemans to sell.”

Mrs. Sperling pondered this. “Be that as it may, it still doesn’t clear him, I’m afraid. Kyle Hoffman’s death is too coincidental.”

“Kyle Hoffman?” Dolores was shocked. “He’s dead?”

“He was killed Wednesday, beaten, as I said before. You knew him?”

“Of course. He’s been peddling hot art for a long time. I was beginning to think he was a fence, cause I couldn’t see how he could be getting it that often for that long without getting caught.”

“He may have been, but he wasn’t caught due to some massive stupidity on the part of his victim.”

“Must have been. Kyle’s not exactly smart himself.”

“Just extremely lucky. I’ll be taking my leave, now, Dolores. Keep well.”

“You, too, Delilah.”

Mrs. Sperling was pensive as we hit the street.

“Where to now?” I asked.

“Let’s check the security company, then we shall have to go home. You’ll need to think up an excuse to confirm Mr. Gonzagos’ flight with the airlines.”

“Okey-dokey.”

We got Eleanor into the car, and took off. Mrs. Sperling remained distant.

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

“Yes. I just can’t think what. There were two glaring mistakes in that room, two things that appeared to be as they should be, but were in reality signs of an inadequate intellect. I keep running over your description of the room, and each time I come across the bird, something in my head says there’s a problem with that.”

“Well, you don’t normally put birds next to open windows because they get sick from draughts.”

“Then we must determine why that one was there.”

“Where is it now?”

“That is a good question. Remind me to ask Sergeant Michaelson when we go to the station this afternoon.”

“I’ll try.”

At the security company, the man we wanted was in, and even better for us, working day shift at the desk. He showed us why. The cast on his leg extended to his knee.

“I was playing football with the kids over the weekend,” he explained.

“That sounds quite enjoyable,” replied Mrs. Sperling. “I wish I could hear more about it, but I’m afraid I don’t have the time. Regarding the night, or morning, that Mr. Stein was killed…”

“Yeah, last Thursday morning.”

“Did you see anything at all in the alley at any time?”

“No. I would have noted it if I had.”

“I’m not talking about anything suspicious necessarily. What about things that are normally there?”

“Mr. Stein’s Ferrari was there all night. And Hoffman’s van, but that’s always there off and on.”

“What times were Mr. Hoffman’s van there?”

“Just in the morning. He’s there a lot in the mornings.”

“Well, he was. Mr. Hoffman is no longer of this world, I’m afraid.”

“That’s too bad. He wasn’t a bad egg. And pretty handy, too. He fixed my air conditioner last summer. Say, you don’t think he saw something, and someone bumped him off to shut him up, do you?”

“It’s possible.” Mrs. Sperling lapsed again. “That may be the connection.” She woke up. “Thank you, sir. You’ve been very helpful.”

“Anytime, ma’am.”

Mrs. Sperling was almost prickly when we got back to the car.

“It’s almost there,” she grumbled. “It’s within reach. I just need a little more. I’m positive the evidence is there.”

“You know who the killer is?”

“I’m fairly certain I know who Hoffman’s killer is, and I suspect he may be behind Stein’s murder also. He’s perfectly alibied for it, so he didn’t actually do it. I just need a connection between him and Hoffman. It’ll probably be a very loose one. He’s very clever.”

“He is? He must have gotten a friend to help.”

Mrs. Sperling nodded.

“Are you sure the two killings are related?” I asked. “I mean the one was so perfectly staged, and the other so brutal.”

“It was far more clever than that.”

“It was?”

But Mrs. Sperling refused to elaborate.

At home, I called a friend of mine who’s a travel agent when she’s not auditioning. I had to beg, plead and practically crawl, but she relented and let me have the phone number I wanted. Mrs. Sperling listened with a great deal of amusement.

“They have a special number they use,” I explained. “If I don’t call that number, I’ll lose a lot of credibility.”

“I am aware of that. Good thinking.”

I took a deep breath and misrepresented myself for the fourth time that day.

“Hello, Mexicana?” I asked. “I need a check on a passenger list, please.”

“Just a minute.”

Muzak floated into my ear while I waited for the right person to answer their phone.

“Yes, may I help you?” a pleasant female voice answered.

“Hi. This is Dorothy Wordsworth from William’s Travel. I have a client here who claims he was billed for a round trip passage to Mexico City that he never purchased. Could you check your list and see if a Federico, or Fred Gonzagos was on a Wednesday night flight there, a week ago this Wednesday past, and returning this Wednesday morning.”

“We don’t have a flight leaving Los Angeles on Wednesdays.”

“He said Wednesday night. Could it have been early Thursday morning?”

“Yes, it could. One moment, please. Mr. Gonzagos was on board flight 212, leaving L.A.X. at twelve-twenty A.M. He returned the following Wednesday, on flight 111, arriving L.A.X. at ten-fifteen A.M.”

“Well, I guess my Mr. Gonzagos has been a victim of credit card fraud. Thank you very much.” I hung up fast.

Mrs. Sperling chuckled.

“That doesn’t let him off the hook,” I said.

“No. But I have one more way of checking him out. Would you go find Glen for me, please?”

 

Frankie Bailey Channels Dame Agatha

Right about the time that Frankie Bailey’s novel Death’s Favorite Child inched its way to the top of Mount To Be Read (aka that ever-growing pile of books that I’m trying to get to), a publicist offered me a guest post by Frankie in honor of the book’s re-release. Naturally, I jumped on the opportunity. Then I met Frankie at Bouchercon this past September and found that she is possibly one of the nicest human beings on the planet. Somewhere in these interactions, I actually read the book and really loved it. So, here’s Frankie Bailey on how she channeled Dame Agatha Christie to write Death’s Favorite Child.

Like many mystery writers, my introduction to the genre began with Nancy Drew, Sherlock Holmes, and Agatha Christie. Agatha Christie has had more impact than I could have imagined on both my academic research and my mystery writing. A Christie novel inspired the title of my nonfiction book, Out of the Woodpile, not only because of the original title of her 1939 novel (now titled And Then There Were None), but because of a phrase used by two characters in the book. I used the story of the three titles of this Christie mystery to illustrate the take-for-granted racism in “Golden Age” crime fiction. And yet, the plot – ten people in an isolated setting being killed off one by one – was a tour de force.

When I began writing my first mystery novel, I was inspired by Christie because I was writing about an amateur sleuth. But my protagonist, Lizzie Stuart, is a criminal justice professor, a crime historian. She is also African American and a response to the stereotypes of Golden Age novels. Lizzie Stuart owes her existence to another crime writer, Richard Martin Stern. Although he was a white male, Stern wrote a series about Johnny Ortiz, a police lieutenant in Santa Rosa, New Mexico. In the first book in the series, Stern introduced Dr. Cassandra “Cassie” Enright, an anthropologist who became Ortiz’s love interest. Cassie Enright was the first black (in her case, biracial) professional female character I had ever encountered in a mystery novel. Teenager me wrote Stern a letter thanking him for Cassie. Years later, I interviewed him by mail when I was working on my nonfiction book about black characters. Stern was my inspiration when I peopled the first book and as the series evolved.

I had intended to set my first Lizzie Stuart novel in “Gallagher, Virginia,” a fictional city inspired by my hometown.  That book became the second in the series when I took Lizzie and the police detective in the book with me on a vacation to Cornwall, England. After years of writing and revising, I wanted to see if I could finish a book. Since I was going to be in England, an Agatha Christie-inspired mystery involving a murder among the guests staying at a private hotel (a bed and breakfast) seemed perfect.  During the week a friend, her six-year-old son, and I spent in a seaside town, I was busy scribbling. I had done much of my research about Cornwall before I arrived. One day I stopped a police officer to ask about the location of the police station. To my surprise, the officer had an American accent. He had retired to Cornwall with his Scottish wife. During high season, he was one of the special officers. And suddenly I had the reason John Quinn, the visiting American police detective in my book, was in Cornwall. He had come to see his former partner.

And I channeled Dame Agatha Christie as I was looking for a murder weapon. I needed a method of death that might have been employed by one of the guests at the private hotel or a couple of other suspects. I wanted something that didn’t require the killer to be present. As I was browsing through the shops on my first evening in Cornwall, the answer came to me.  Food in the form of what I decided to call “yummy balls” — delicious but lethal for someone with a severe peanut allergy. When my book, Death’s Favorite Child, was published, another friend concocted the recipe based on what the about-to-become-victim tells Lizzie: (https://www.frankieybailey.com/amateur-sleuth/recipes/alices-yummy-balls).

Death’s Favorite Child was followed by a revised and updated version of the book I had been working on for year (A Dead Man’s Honor). The series was published by a small, independent press. The five books are now being reissued by a new publisher in both ebook and print. Because “series time” has moved slowly, the books are now set in the recent past (2004). Lizzie has aged only two years. But much has happened since she left her hometown, Drucilla, Kentucky, on a vacation in Cornwall, and later moved to Gallagher, Virginia.

In the sixth book in the series, Lizzie will visit Richard Martin Stern country – Santa Fe, New Mexico. My tip of the hat to a writer who inspired me to think about not only the plot but the topics that crime fiction can explore.

You can find Death’s Favorite Child on BarnesandNoble.com or on Amazon.com.

 

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mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Sixteen

Two and a half hours and three bars later, Phil and I were finally calling each other by name, although as far as conversation was concerned, we seemed to be repeating Sally Field’s Oscar speech a lot. Ramona Bistler went home. By herself.

“What a washout,” I grumbled as Phil parked the BMW across the street and down a little, where it wouldn’t be obvious but there was still a good view.

“Tonight has not been a total loss,” he chuckled.

“No. Why are we stopping here?”

“To watch the house.”

“Are we going to stay here all night?”

“I doubt it.” Phil yawned. He had sent his friends on home. He stretched, then let his arm fall across my shoulders.

“So why are we watching?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe she’ll leave again.”

“Maybe.” It wasn’t that late, and I couldn’t complain about where I was. “She didn’t do a darn thing, and the only person she saw that could be connected to anything was Devon.”

“And Aunt Delilah didn’t seem terribly worried about our physical safety.” Phil mused. “However, she did seem very anxious that I take you with me, personally.”

I looked at him. “She wouldn’t.”

“I think she did. She knew how crazy I am about you. I spent enough time telling her.”

“I did my fair share of sighing about it, too. So that’s why she insisted you drive me out to Pasadena. That sneak.”

“I can’t complain.”

He moved in. I went to meet him.

“What’s that?” I yelped, pulling back at the last second.

A lone figure ran across Bistler’s lawn.

“I’ll go find out,” said Phil.

“No!” I held him back. “That place has got to have at least thirty alarms hooked up to the police.”

“We were necking when we saw this suspicious character and decided to see if we could get a better look at him. Aunt Delilah will back us up. Besides, why would I want to break into Ramona Bistler’s house? Or anybody else’s, for that matter? Why don’t you call the cops? I’ll be right back.”

Nervously, I picked up my phone and dialed. It took about three minutes to get through everything. It might have taken less time, but I got tongue-tied when I told the operator my friend was trying to get a better look at the intruder, and she asked for his name. She didn’t notice a thing. I even had to spell it for her.

Phil had yet to show up. I got worried and left the car. A tall, spare figure came around the corner of the house. Lamplight glinted on his light hair. He didn’t look quite right. I figured it was the dark.

“Phil!” I called softly.

The figure ran back where he’d come from. I chased after him. Just as I got to the corner of the house, I was grabbed. I screamed. A hand clamped over my mouth, cutting it short.

“You idiot!” Phil growled. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“He went that-a way!” I pointed.

“Can’t be. He’s breaking into the garage.”

“Tall and light-haired?”

“No. Short and dark, with a moustache.”

“Lansky?”

“The chauffeur. Right. What does he want here?”

“And who was that other guy? To hell with Lansky.”

I started around the corner, but Phil held me back again.

“It’s too dark and overgrown there,” he hissed. “We’ll go around the other way.”

“But what if he comes around this way?”

“Alright. You stay in front.”

I followed Phil to the other edge of the house. Phil made me wait at the corner.

“Sexist,” I grumbled.

A minute later I heard several thuds, shoes scraping across stucco, and a couple ominous oophs. I started back, but was pushed aside by a running figure. I ran after. I hadn’t grown up playing football for nothing. I tackled the man at the end of the driveway.

I made one fatal error. Once I had him down, I had no idea what to do with him. He heaved up. I fought for my grasp and hung on. He rolled over on top of me. I gasped as he sat up on my mid-section. He swore as he saw my legs. He knew I wasn’t very heavy, but I guess didn’t expect to find I was a woman. I pounded on his back. He jumped to his feet, and was blinded by a bright white light.

“Police! Freeze!”

I was so glad when he didn’t make a run for it. I waited until the officers had Lansky in their grasp before stirring. It startled the hell out of one young man about my age.

“You alright, lady?” he asked, as I got up.

“Yeah. Fine. Oh no! My friend!” I ran to the side of the house.

Phil slowly made his way out.

“Are you alright?” I asked, and slid under his arm.

“Oh. I’m okay. Where’s that damn Irishman when I need him?”

“Irishman?”

“You know. Your friend.”

“Mickey. He’s only half Irish. The other half’s Swedish.”

“No kidding. I’m half Swedish. On my mother’s side.”

The young officer came up. “It looks like we got him.”

Another patrol car pulled up, and two more officers fell out and prowled around the grounds.

“There’s a second one,” I said. “I think he went into the house.”

A female voice shrilled out, cursing in all manner of foul language.

“Hey!” an officer called from the back. “There’s a forced window back here. Goes into a bedroom.”

An infuriated Ramona Bistler appeared in a skimpy negligee from her front door.

“I demand to know what is going on here!” she shrieked.

“Lady, someone has been trying to break into your house,” said a big burly officer with a red moustache. “We think there may be another one still in there. You just stay put until we say it’s clear. Alf, get the broad a blanket.”

Bistler shivered. Well, it was cold and she wasn’t wearing that much. The young officer presented her with a grey woolly affair. Bistler snatched it and wrapped it around herself.

“Ramona!” said Phil, in feigned surprise. “Is this your house?”

She cursed again. “Phil, what the hell are you doing here?”

“We had just stopped to neck when we saw someone running across your lawn.”

“Neck? With who?” Bistler stopped when she saw me. “Her? I thought she was driving Delilah Sperling around. When did she start driving you?”

“I just drive him nuts,” I said with a little grin.

Bistler was too nervous to notice. She kept looking at the house. A few minutes later, the officers said it was all clear, but they wanted to have a lab team and detectives look at the forced window.

Bistler sighed with relief. Phil and I followed her inside as if we belonged there. Officers went back and forth between the front door and Bistler’s bedroom. I walked back and peeked in. By that time, the detectives had arrived with the lab truck. One man dusted for fingerprints, while another photographed the outside.

I walked all the way into the room. The bed was a mess, with one set of pillows on it, pushed to the left. On the right hand nightstand was a small brass lamp, pushed to the back of the table. It’s shade had been knocked askew. Under the lamp were two dimes. On the floor, next to the stand, a brass card case lay up-ended in a v-shape. Several white business card were scattered under the case, and three pennies and a nickel lay close by.

I bent down to look at the cards.

“Officer,” I asked. “May I have one of these?”

He came over and looked at the nightstand. “So her lover took off. Go ahead.”

I slid the card out carefully. Even if the officer was more interested in people getting in, I was interested in the man who had gotten out. I read the name on the card, and smiled.

Phil and I called Mrs. Sperling from his iPhone. It was only twelve fifteen, and she was still up. We went by the house and brought her and Eleanor to the police station. She had called Sergeant Michaelson, and he was there waiting for us, yawning and wearing a beat up velour sweat top and jeans with a bagging seat.

“You think this Lansky guy’s important?” Michaelson asked as we walked in.

“I won’t know until you question him, Sergeant,” Mrs Sperling said. “I regret getting you out of bed on mere speculation, but as I explained on the phone earlier this evening, it is a very ticklish situation, and best resolved as soon as possible.”

Phil looked at me, and I shrugged. I had missed that call. Michaelson yawned, and led us down to the questioning rooms. He looked at the detective standing at the door. In a most eloquent shrug, the detective said odds were fifty-fifty that Lansky would talk.

We went in. I don’t know if it was exactly legal. I’m pretty sure Mrs. Sperling wouldn’t have risked messing up the court case. Lansky sat huddled in a chair.

“Okay, Lansky,” said Sergeant Michaelson. “We’ve got you on breaking and entering charges. What have you got to say for yourself?”

No answer.

“Mr. Lansky,” said Mrs. Sperling. “I would recommend your full cooperation. Without it, the charges could be as serious murder one.”

“She’s not fooling, Lansky.” Michaelson added the official voice.

“Murder!” Lansky squeaked. “I haven’t done nothing like that. Honest.”

“What were you breaking into your former boss’s house for?” asked Michaelson.

“To get some stuff. It belonged to me. I needed it.”

“Then why didn’t you just ask her?”

“It’s perfectly understandable why not, Sergeant,” broke in Mrs. Sperling. “Even if Ms. Bistler did not disapprove of her former chauffeur’s drug use, she might have asked for her share of his stash, or even taken some without asking. Unfortunately, being unemployed put Mr. Lansky in a definite bind, as cocaine remains a very expensive habit to maintain. Isn’t that it, Mr. Lansky?”

“How’d you find out?” he snarled. “I said nothing about it to your driver. Or did you already know?”

“I knew nothing about it until just now. It was mere guesswork, Mr. Lansky. Why wouldn’t you have wanted to have Ms. Bistler fetch your possession, something you didn’t want to admit to the police was yours, unless it was contraband? You had also expressed a rather suspicious, though perhaps deserved, paranoia regarding me in that encounter with my chauffeur which you mentioned just now. It was also something you needed desperately enough to risk an electronic security system and the presence of people in the house. Given the symptoms of cocaine use, its addictive nature, and it’s prevalence, it was a fairly safe guess.”

Lansky backed down. “All right. She kicked me out so fast, I couldn’t get everything together. It was in the garage. I figured I’d wait a few days to let it die down, then go after it. I had to get it. These guys are into me for five hundred bucks. They wanted their shit or they wanted their money and fast. What am I s’posed to do? Look, I’ll give you their names. Pitch Corsky and Dick Rider. If they killed somebody, I don’t know nothing about it, honest!”

“Do you know Kyle Hoffman?” asked Michaelson.

“Who the hell’s he?”

“One other question, Mr. Lansky,” Mrs. Sperling asked. “On what kind of terms were you with Ms. Bistler’s late husband?”

“Oh, it’s that murder.” Lansky swore. “I got friends can vouch for me that night.”

“Answer the question, Lansky,” growled Michaelson.

“Mr. Stein? I don’t know. He drove himself most times, in the Ferrari. I hardly ever talked to him.”

“What do you know about rumors that he was counterfeiting?” asked Mrs. Sperling.

“Oh, hell, everybody knew that. I never seen him do it. But lots of people said so.”

“Who were they?”

“People. I don’t know. You go to parties, the maids bring back the noise to the drivers. You know how it goes.”

“I’m afraid I do.” Mrs. Sperling sighed. “I strongly suspect that’s the best we’re going to do, Sergeant. Nebulous rumors at parties are all too common, and impossible to trace. Besides, I already have a source for the rumors. I was hoping to find a connection.” She got up. “I’ve asked all the questions I needed answered.”

“I got no more, either.” Michaelson yawned. We left the room. “Damn it, Mrs. Sperling, that was a big fat zero.”

“On the contrary, it was extremely productive. We can now eliminate Mr. Lansky, and at this stage in the game, that is a major help.”

Officer Willoughby appeared from another questioning room.

“Evening, Sergeant,” he said, grinning. “Just brought a suspect in on the Morris burglary. Grant says he wants to question her. Oh, hello, Mrs. Sperling.”

“Good evening, Officer,” Mrs. Sperling smiled pleasantly.

“Evening, Willoughby,” Michaelson growled.

“Well, I’ve got to get back to my beat,” said Willoughby, and left.

Michaelson yawned again and nodded. He went his way, and we went ours.

“Was the capture of Mr. Lansky the total profit of your evening?” Mrs. Sperling asked Phil and me as we walked through the halls.

“Not quite,” I said. “I hit the jackpot. Get a load out of what I found in Bistler’s bedroom.” I gave her the business card. “It’s engraved. Can you read it?”

“It’s not a good typeset for my kind of reading, but…” She smiled. “This is most interesting. What do you suppose Mr. Hendricks was doing there?”

Phil burst into loud laughter. I shushed him, then told Mrs. Sperling about the bed and nightstand.

She nodded. “An excellent piece of deduction.”

“Not necessarily. The detective took one look at the scene and guessed the same thing.”

“All you need is the practice.”

“Oh, and we also saw Devon and Gillian at one of the places Bistler went.” I sighed. “I lost them, unfortunately, and we didn’t see hide nor hair of them after that.”

“Did either of them talk to Ms. Bistler?”

I shook my head. “Not that I saw.”

“Me, either,” said Phil.

“Still, you’re right. It is interesting that their paths crossed. How was your evening otherwise?”

“Bistler was a bore,” Phil answered. “Granted she did have someone at home waiting for her. But you knew that, didn’t you, Aunt Delilah?”

“What?”

“Your little matchmaking scheme. We know when we’ve been set up.” Phil gave me a little squeeze. “And we’re pretty glad.”

“Well, I’m glad things are working out so nicely for you. But matchmaking? Good heavens, Phillip. I wouldn’t dream of meddling in that way. It can have the most deleterious effects.”

Phil wasn’t listening, nor was I. Our eyes caught, and while it was not the most romantic moment, it was the right one. We kissed.

Mrs. Sperling paused. “Phillip? Donna?”

We ignored her.

“Oh, for heaven’s sakes. Granted we are in a police station, and it is the middle of the night. But when you two are with me, I would appreciate it if you would maintain a modicum of decorum.”

Phil grinned, and brushed my nose with his finger.

“Just a modicum,” he said.

mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Fifteen

Phillip DuPre was waiting for us when we got back to the house. He was dressed up in a dark, shimmery jacket with a dark purple shirt, tie in gold, olive green and purple, and black dress slacks.

“Splice-Man’s got her covered,” He told Mrs. Sperling. “Iggy and Bernie are waiting elsewhere. I figured I’d better take restaurant detail, just in case she goes someplace where we’ll need some influence to get a last minute reservation.”

“Excellent, Phillip.” Mrs. Sperling smiled. “Donna, why don’t you get dressed and accompany Phillip? I’m sure he won’t want to eat dinner alone.”

Not to mention how much I wouldn’t mind being his guest.

“Won’t you need me?” I asked anyway.

“Not tonight. I’m staying in.”

“Well, I do have that money from my car.”

“My treat,” He said quickly.

“Oh. You don’t have to.”

“No problem.”

“Hurry, Donna.”

I dressed in record time. They were in the living room when I finished.

“I’m ready,” I announced a lot more casually than I felt.

“Well, Phillip,” said Mrs. Sperling. If I hadn’t known her better, I would have sworn she was smirking. “How does Donna look?”

His eyes went up and down my yellow polished cotton shirtwaist with the full skirt. I was wearing black patent sling back pumps and black chunky jewelry, too. I’d also left the bottom two buttons on the skirt undone. My legs are my best asset, and so what if nothing was going to happen. I had a black lacy cardigan in my hand in case it got cool.

“Very nice,” He said softly.

“Good. Now where were we?” Mrs. Sperling thought. “Ah. We talked with her attorney. He’d told her to avoid romantic liaisons until the will was settled. He seemed to be afraid it might be contested.”

“Montoinne would,” He said with a chuckle.

“You know him.”

“Sort of. He’s a funny old bird. Was basically straight and sober until his wife died a couple years ago. Then he went into a mid-life crisis for the books. Started hanging around some pretty interesting females, including Ramona.”

“He did indicate that their relationship was more than professional. However, strangely enough, Paul Grisom, Mr. Stein’s lawyer, said there was only a minimal chance that the will would be contested. I wonder if Montoinne knows that?”

He shrugged. “He could. He’s got pretty good hearing, if you know what I mean.”

“Then why would he be interested in restraining Ms. Bistler, so to speak? And why would he be concerned, when he knows Ms. Bistler doesn’t need Mr. Stein’s money to be comfortable? Although, I might add, Ms. Bistler doesn’t know it.”

He laughed. “It’s perfectly simple. Montoinne’s jealous.”

“Jealous? Of what?”

“Of dear Ramona’s many other boyfriends. Mid-life crisis or not, Montoinne’s still a stuffy old bird at heart, and firmly believes in one man per woman, even if she has to share. A sexist attitude, admittedly, but not surprising from one of his generation.”

“Not in the least.” Mrs. Sperling shook her head. “How do you know so much about him?”

“I’ve seen him at parties, things like that. And I hear things, too.”

“And how do you know what’s malicious gossip and what isn’t?”

“That’s just it. I don’t. But I heard them fighting a few weeks back. I didn’t catch much, but more than enough to know what it was about.”

“Hm.” Mrs. Sperling mused.

“Um, might I ask what we should be looking for?” He looked at her hopefully.

“Anything and everything, of course,” Mrs. Sperling replied blithely.

“What are we doing?” I asked.

Mrs. Sperling smiled again, that almost smirk. “You are going to be, as it is known in the jargon, tailing Ms. Ramona Bistler.”

“Why?” I asked.

“To see what happens.”

“Oh. We’d better get going.”

Mrs. Sperling shook her head. “Not yet. Phillip’s friend, Mr. Davies, hasn’t telephoned us with Ms. Bistler’s whereabouts.”

“What if she stays home?”

“I had Glen call and ask if a mutual acquaintance might drop by this evening, and she insisted she would be out.”

A cellular phone tweetered. He picked it up.

“Yo, Splice-Man.” He listened. “No kidding…. If I can’t, I’ll have Iggy get some chow for us…. Uh, yeah, Aunt Delilah’s new driver…. Don’t ask me…. Never mind. You meet up with Iggy, and we’ll call with the next location…. Yeah, bye.” He flashed a weak grin at me, then turned to Mrs. Sperling. “She went to Mr. G.’s.”

“Oh, dear. Will you be able to get a reservation?”

He shrugged. “It’s Thursday night, and they’re really Industry conscious.”

He looked up the number on his iPhone and dialed. He looked at me, and I swear, blushed as He made the reservation for twenty minutes later. He looked over at Mrs. Sperling.

“Geez, it’s so embarrassing when I have to play Industry heavyweight,” He told her.

“Well, darling, be thankful you are, and I’ll be thankful you don’t have the ego to go with it. Run along, now, both of you, and be careful.”

It was another quiet ride over to the restaurant that was currently “the place to be.” It was so hot, even People magazine hadn’t caught onto it yet. I tried to be blase about it. It was filled with “names.” Several came over to say hello. He was cool, and greeted them politely, and introduced me as a friend of a friend.

One producer, I forget his name, made some inane comment about blind dates. I thought I would sink through the floor. My sort of date just laughed and said even blind dates sometimes worked out.

Ramona Bistler was there, but didn’t see us. She was with another woman.

“You wouldn’t happen to know the woman she’s with?” I finally asked Him as we ate.

He looked over my shoulder, then back at his plate.

“Rita Cartlin. She’s married to Niles Cartlin.”

I grimaced. “I should know that name, shouldn’t I?”

He shrugged. “He produces a few sitcoms. Not a bad name to know, but not a real heavy hitter, either.”

“Oh.” There was silence. “What do you know about his wife?”

“Rita?” He chewed thoughtfully, then fidgeted with his fork. “I’ve heard she’s no stranger to other men’s beds. There’s another rumor floating around that she slept with some nameless network mucky-muck to get her husband’s first series on the schedule. His ratings are respectable, so it may or may not be true. She and Ramona seem to be soul mates.”

He looked over at Bistler and Cartlin speculatively, then looked at me and went back to His plate. He paid as soon as He ordered dessert.

“Got to be ready to move,” He explained.

“Right.” I, too, concentrated on eating. I couldn’t think of anything to say.

I figured He thought I was a total idiot. He only had me with Him to please Mrs. Sperling. I must have been boring Him silly.

He started. “They’re leaving.”

He ducked His head as they went past, then looked at me. I gave them half a second’s lead.

“They’re almost to the door,” I whispered.

“Good. Let’s go.”

We ambled out. He pretended He didn’t hear some big shot saying hi. Cartlin was getting into a limo, while Bistler waited for the valet to bring her car. We were self-parked on the street. We slid out behind her, and got into His BMW, just as Bistler got into a bright red Ferrari.

“That’ll be easy to follow,” He said, then smiled.

We followed her to Westwood. She had her car valet parked off of Westwood Blvd., and went into a bar there. He parked near there and grabbed the phone.

“Hey, Bernie, she’s at The White Elephant…. Okay, we’ll park it, and next stop, we’ll all rendezvous….” He wrote down a phone number. “I’ve got it…. See ya.”

He hung up.

“Wh-whose number?” I asked.

“Splice-Man’s new phone. I’ve already got Bernie and Iggy’s numbers.”

“Oh.”

“They’re friends of mine from film school.”

“Oh.”

I tried to figure out who they could be. Given Phillip DuPre’s status, they had to be some kind of hot shots. I didn’t want to embarrass myself by asking who they were.

Meeting them didn’t help. We rendezvoused in Santa Monica, at another fancy hot spot. Splice-Man turned out to be Edouard Davies, a short black man wearing black 501s and a red double breasted western shirt. Iggy, or Ignatius McMartin, was taller, quiet, with curly brown hair and glasses. He held onto Bernie, who was really Bernadette Bernstein. She wore a bulky sweater over dark, slim pants, and was a buxom lass indeed.

I was introduced as a dancer, moonlighting as Mrs. Sperling’s chauffeur and aide-de-camp. That’s when Bernie decided she did not like me. It was more of a mama-bear type reaction. She and Iggy were obviously very tight.

I hung back and let them talk. From the conversation, I guessed that Splice-Man and Iggy were both film editors, and Bernie was a sound engineer. Bernie and Iggy were finally getting married because Bernie was pregnant. During the cheering, I noticed Him looking at me. For no reason at all, I went purple, and gazed about the bar.

Bistler was busy dancing with anybody and everybody. She didn’t seem to know the guys, or even care. A tall, blonde figure that could have been a man or a woman, glared from the bar.

“Gillian,” I said suddenly.

“Who?” He asked.

“Gillian. She works for Devon, from Devonaire. She’s standing at the bar.”

Bernie shrugged. “Devonaire. That’s that boutique down on Melrose. The clothes are nice, but too pricey for me. That Devon sure is weird, though.”

Phillip DuPre laughed. “I’ve met him before.”

I pointed to the dance floor. “And he’s here, dancing.”

“So, Phil,” teased Splice-Man. “You’ve got a dancer with you. Why don’t you ask her to dance?”

He looked at me and got up. “Sure. If you want.”

“I guess.”

Not only was He gorgeous, He could really dance. I was in heaven. All I lacked was something to say to Him. Bistler left, and Splice-Man slipped out after her. He kept me dancing. The D.J. called a break. As we went back to our table, Devon took off. I hurried after, but by the time I hit the street, he was gone.

I went around the table to the restroom, sulked for a minute, then went back to see if Gillian was still around. She wasn’t.

With the music off, the rumble of voices filled the room. Bernie and Iggy were facing me, and He had His back to me as I came up to the table.

“I don’t know,” He was complaining. “I just don’t think Donna likes me.”

“I don’t like you?” I heard myself screech. “Where’d you get that crazy idea?”

He whirled and turned red. “But… But… You won’t talk to me.”

“Well, you won’t say anything to me.” Utterly frustrated, and embarrassed to death, I flopped into my chair. “Besides, what do you say to your favorite god?”

“Who? Phil?” asked Bernie.

“Shut up, Bernie,” he said. He turned back to me. “Am I that intimidating?”

I grew hotter, if that were possible. “I don’t know. I’ve never known any big names before, and I can’t imagine you being interested in a peon like me.”

The phone had to ring then. We took off to meet Splice-Man in Century City.

“I’m sorry,” I told him. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you in front of your friends.”

“You didn’t embarrass me.”

“I said some pretty stupid things.”

“What? Like I haven’t?” He checked his blind spot, then whipped into the next lane.

“You must think I’m an idiot.”

“I don’t think you’re an idiot.”

“But-”

“Will you please be quiet for a few minutes? I’ve got to think this out.”

Like I was going to say anything more? My head filled with visions of my career going down the drain, all because I opened my fat trap one time too many. I was certain he hated me and would see to it that I never worked in Hollywood again.

“Alright,” he said as we pulled onto the Avenue of the Stars. “You like me. That’s fine. You’re too intimidated to say anything. I can understand that, sort of. Hasn’t Aunt Delilah said I’m okay?”

“Yeah,” I sighed.

“Then what gives?”

I glanced at him nervously. He smiled gently. Oh well, He could only blacklist me once.

“I remember the first time I saw you, I joked with my friend, Tina, that I would love a chance to fall in love with you. Then Mrs. Sperling brought me to your door, and I went under. I was floored. It’s not just the name. You’re so good looking, and nice, except you didn’t say anything to me. Not that I was that brilliant.”

His hand softly took mine. “I remember White Heat. I loved your dancing, but I needed lusty, which is why I hired a girl with tits. When you turned up on my doorstep, I about died. You were even cuter then.” He pulled his hand away so he could get the car parked. “I guess I’m just like everyone else in Hollywood, completely neurotic and no self-esteem. I get around a woman I like, and I’m completely tongue-tied. I go back to being that nerdy fourteen-year-old whose only experience with women was reading Playboys stolen from my best friend’s father.” He looked at me again, a bemused smile lighting up his face. “You like me.”

He opened the door.

“Um,” I said.

He grinned. “Yeah. I like you. A lot.”

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

How to Chop an Onion

Wow. It feels like forever since I’ve a done a Dark Side of the Fridge post. And it probably has. Nonetheless, I’m adding a new basic cooking skill to the mix. The idea, as I have explained before, is that there’s a world of difference between cooking and simply following recipes. So the more basic cooking skills you have under your belt, the easier it is to adapt recipes and to get a healthy dinner on the table fast.

Since an awful lot of dishes, from soups, stews and casseroles, start with chopped onion, it only makes sense to focus on getting one chopped evenly and quickly without loss of digits or skin.

Your first step is to cut the onion from stem to blossom end

 

Like so

 

Then cut off the stem end (it’s the end that does not have all the scraggly root bits).

 

Next, lift and pull back the papery peel.

 

Now, placing the knife edge perpendicular to the onion, make a series of radial cuts around the onion half.

 

Like here…

 

Here…

 

And here. If you look closely, you’ll see that I’ve made lots of cuts, about a quarter inch apart, all along the onion half.

 

Now, slice the onion across the rings. See how the little diced bits just fall off the knife.

 

Ta dah! A perfectly diced onion, ready for the pot. And in about two minutes, too. Okay, it may take you a little longer, but don’t worry. Keep cooking and you’ll get plenty of practice.

Chapter Fourteen

“We should have walked from the parking lot,” I said, as I drove around the block where Hendricks’ gallery was located for the third time.

“Hm. It would have been better exercise, too.”

“There’s one!” I stepped on the accelerator. I hit the brakes as a little red Mercedes cut in front of me and grabbed the spot. “Jackass!”

“It’s a good thing we have seat belts.”

“Hang on. I just spotted another one, and I’ll be darned if I’m going to lose it.”

“Banzai,” remarked Mrs. Sperling passively. “Is it really worth wrecking the car just for a parking place?”

“No. But the other drivers don’t have to know I feel that way. There are some things you just have to bluff your way through.” I looked over my shoulder as I backed in. I shifted into drive, pulled forward a little, and checked my position. “I’ll be. A perfect two-point landing. Think we can stay here a while, Mrs. Sperling? I want to enjoy this.”

“I doubt it. But fear not. I’m sure as time marches on, this sort of thing will be a more and more frequent occurrence. On to the gallery.”

I was a little surprised to see it open, and nervous. Hendricks was violent and not above dirty tricks. I remembered what Michaelson had said about Hoffman’s body and shuddered. Mrs. Sperling did not seem in the least perturbed and walked in without hesitation.

As usual, she knew what she was doing. Another milder man was behind the desk, talking on the phone. He was average size with brown wavy hair. Another woman browsed. The man hung up the phone and approached her, speaking very softly. She smiled and shook her head.

“I’m just looking, thank you.”

The man approached us.

“May I help you, ladies?” he almost whispered.

“I believe so,” answered Mrs. Sperling. “What is your name?”

“Bob Dorsett.” He accented the last syllable.

“Isn’t this studio owned by Edgar Hendricks?”

“Yes, but he isn’t in today. I’m his associate, and I can handle anything he would have.”

“I take it, you often act in his stead.”

“I have to. Ed’s not always here.”

“He was here yesterday.”

“Not all day. He left around three thirty. It was something important. He was in a pretty big rush.”

“As if he was scared?”

“Ed’s always scared.”

“He may have good reason this time. Do you know why he isn’t here today?”

“He’s out of town.”

“Was this a planned trip?”

“No. He does that sometimes. Just decides to take off. He called me last night, in the middle of the night, and said he was going, the keys to the gallery were in my mailbox, and they were.”

“Did he say where he was going?”

“That’s funny. He didn’t. He usually does. I wonder if he’s in some sort of trouble.”

“He is. He’s wanted on assault charges by the Los Angeles police. He attacked Miss Brechter, here, last night, and later assaulted her friend when he came to her rescue.”

“Oh, geez. Damn that Ed. He has one hell of a short fuse. He knows art, but if you ask me, he isn’t all there. He drives people out of here ’cause he thinks he’s the only person who knows anything. The only reason this place is still on its feet is because he isn’t always here, and because he does know his art.” Dorsett sighed. “It’s too bad, too. The guy can’t run a business worth beans. Never checks up on his back orders, can’t get the billing straight. What’s a guy like me to do?”

“Make up for his inefficiencies?” Mrs. Sperling smiled.

“Only when he’s not here. If Ed thought I didn’t think he knew what he was doing, he’d have my head on a plate, and then fire me. That guy has got a temper. You should have seen what he did with this bronze we had. Some customer said it was a piece of… Well, he wasn’t very nice about it. Ed got mad. Real mad. Picked up the bronze and heaved into a Niedeman serigraph. Put a dent in the wall, he threw it so hard. The Niedeman was ruined. It was one of the signed ones, too.” Dorsett shook his head. “Ed can’t afford losses like that. If things don’t get better this Christmas, we’re going under, and that’s a fact. Ed’s broke. He won’t believe it. He thinks the bank guys that are after him are just out to get him for personal reasons.”

“So he needs money.”

“He needs it bad.”

Mrs. Sperling nodded. “He wasn’t too fond of the Stein gallery, was he?”

“He hated Josh Stein’s guts. Josh knew what he was doing, even if he wasn’t a big party type. And in Ed’s defense, I gotta admit, Josh could be a real stuck up pain in the ass. But the big thing Ed had against him was that Josh’s gallery was doing better than his. Josh couldn’t pick his art nearly as well, but he sold a lot more. Ed couldn’t stand that.”

“Given what I know of his personality, I can imagine he found it a bitter pill to swallow.”

“Ma’am, can I tell you a secret?” Dorsett’s soft voice sank even lower. I had to really strain just to hear. “Last week, I heard Ed say he had plans for Josh’s gallery. He wouldn’t say what they were, but he gets this real sneaky grin on his face. The kind I know means trouble. The thing that scares me, the next day they find Josh dead. Somebody knocked him on the noggin and left him in a garage with the motor running. I asked Ed where he was that night. He wouldn’t say. He just laughed.”

“Interesting. Still, it’s not completely conclusive, as I’m sure you’re aware, Mr. Dorsett. Ergo, Mr. Hendricks’ continued liberty. Are you aware of the rumors that Mr. Stein was counterfeiting?”

“Those have been circulating for the past year and a half.”

“Anything in them?”

“No way. Ed started them, trying to do in Josh’s business. Nobody believed them. Josh was too straight. And several people had had their stuff authenticated. It was genuine. Besides, somebody would have to be a real dope to try and sell forgeries out of his own gallery. A bad reputation can kill you in this business.”

“Which is precisely why Mr. Hendricks started the rumors, I’m sure.” Mrs. Sperling thought for a long moment. “You say the business has been doing poorly. Might I and my associate look at the books?”

Dorsett started. “Why? You’re not a cop. You can’t be.”

“No, I’m a private investigator. Mr. Hendricks may have been the innocent victim of a thief. You made a comment earlier about back orders. If your books reveal what I think they will, it may help explain some things. Would you be so kind?”

“I-I don’t know. If Ed finds out, he’ll kill me.”

“That is, unfortunately, possible. However, I seriously doubt he’ll be back today. I won’t tell him, and my associate surely will not. That leaves only you to say anything. Can you be trusted to keep quiet about it?”

“How crazy do you think I am? Look, ma’am, books are something private. You just don’t show them to every person that comes through that door.”

“I am not every person. Is there by any chance some illegal activity recorded in those books that you do not want me to find?”

“No! No way.”

“Then I do not understand your hesitation in allowing me to go over them.”

“It’s the principle of the thing, ma’am. You’re in here trying to find out about Ed. I’ve already told you more than I should have. But people talk, and in the long run, it’s my word against yours, and your associate’s. But she’s biased for you, so I figure I’m not taking too many chances. The books are written and legal.”

“And also destroyable.”

“Which would look pretty funny, and would get me into all sorts of trouble. Sorry, ma’am, that’s too much sticking my neck out.”

Mrs. Sperling sighed. “I understand. However, if you don’t show them to me now, I shall be forced to have a member of the Beverly Hills police obtain a search warrant for them. Either way, I will know what is in those books. I would appreciate it if I could look at them now, thus saving me a great deal of time, and the taxpayers of this community some money. I might also add, a search warrant would be public, and would certainly arouse Mr. Hendricks.”

Dorsett weighed this out. After a minute, he walked over to the desk and pressed a few keys on the computer’s keyboard.

“It’s all yours,” he said with the resignation of a reluctant Christian facing the lions.

Eleanor led Mrs. Sperling over, and I followed. The store’s spreadsheet was on the screen.

“Well,” I said, scrolling through the page. “It looks like they were making ends meet until July. Before that, they’re okay. There seems to be an increasing back order cost, though, going back, geez, almost a year.”

“We’ve had tons of them,” sighed Dorsett. “Mostly last spring. None of the high ticket items, just prints, you know, serigraphs and lithos. But they added up. Ed wouldn’t go after the studios. He told me to wait, and he’d take care of it. But he never did. Ed must have talked to them eventually, cause we’ve been getting full orders since July for the most part. But it was around then that the back orders really began to hurt. Summer’s kind of slow for us.”

“Who had access to the prints when they came in?”

“No one, except me and Ed.”

“Are you sure? There were no other employees at the time?”

“No. It’s always just been me and Ed.”

“That is awkward. Perhaps if we could look at the packing slips.”

“They’re in the back order file with all the others.”

I dug them out. It was a thick file. “Okay, here they are. Let me get this paper clip off. The received count is written in red ballpoint ink. The back order is noted in the next column, in black ballpoint ink, and in a different hand than the received. Looks like studio shipping people are not real well educated, which would account for the mistakes.”

“It could,” agreed Mrs. Sperling. “Well, Mr. Dorsett, I regret that we’ve caused you any discomfort. But I must thank you for your kindness. This does shed some light on a very intriguing problem. We’ll be off, now. Thanks again.”

She sighed once we were on the street. I frowned.

“I thought you said we didn’t have enough evidence for a search warrant,” I said.

“Well, as you said earlier, there are some things you just have to bluff your way through.” She shook her head. “It’s hard to imagine how people can be so stupid at times.”

“Those back orders are Hoffman’s hot prints, you think?”

“I’d be fairly positive, except for one thing. How on earth did he get a hold of them?”

“The conspiracy theory again.”

“Yes. But who is conspiring with whom? And how does all this fit in with Mr. Stein’s murder?”

“Could it have been a personal thing all along, and Hoffman just happened to be mixed up in it?” I looked out at the traffic.

“That would seem rather likely, given Ms. Bistler and Mr. Hendricks. Yet, they are both independent of each other. They both made up separate lies. They both had opportunity, and they both have separate, though powerful motives.”

“Where was Bistler when Hoffman was killed?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Mrs. Sperling said with a shrug. “She didn’t know him. You must have noticed how much calmer she became when I asked about him.”

“But you said you thought Hoffman was connected to the counterfeiting.”

“He probably was. I’m wondering if we aren’t dealing with two separate, but related crimes here. The murder could indeed have a personal motive.”

“You know. It now strikes me that that Grisom guy had a great deal of venom for Ramona Bistler.”

“Does he fit our description?”

I closed my eyes briefly. “Come to think of it, he does.”

“Which only stops us from eliminating him. But why kill Mr. Stein? It was Ms. Bistler he didn’t care for.”

“Maybe he had something against Stein that he didn’t tell us, like Stein caught him embezzling. Grisom conked Stein on the head, then left him in a garage, waited a while, then returned him to the studio, using Stein’s keys. And because he doesn’t like Bistler, he tries to push us in her direction. In the meantime, he’s fixing the books so if Bistler doesn’t get nailed for it, she won’t know what happened to the money.”

“Perhaps the most plausible scenario that we’ve stumbled across. Unfortunately, it’s mere speculation without a shred of evidence. We shall have to examine Mr. Grisom more thoroughly.” Mrs. Sperling paused as Eleanor held her back from stepping into the street.

“I’ve got an idea about how to see if he has an alibi for last Wednesday night. I’ll pretend I’m a survey taker.” I gently tagged Mrs. Sperling’s elbow as the pedestrian light turned green.

“He may not answer you. There are those people who do not like being surveyed, and they rarely have anything to hide.”

“It’s worth a try.”

“Yes. But I would recommend waiting until tomorrow at the soonest. He might think it suspicious that someone is so interested in his whereabouts on the night of the murder so soon after we were there. In the meantime, we’d best also look for a connection between Mr. Hoffman and Mr. Hendricks. Wait. It just now occurs to me that the morning we found Mr. Stein, Mr. Hoffman mentioned the rumors surrounding the counterfeits. He must have been in contact with Mr. Hendricks somewhere along the line. But where?”

I shrugged. “Hiding in the back alley? Who knows? I wonder where we look.”

“Probably with Mr. Hoffman’s associates. They might be less cautious than Mr. Hendricks, or easier to confuse.”

“You know, Hendricks was not at the gallery when Hoffman was killed. And that Dorsett guy says Hendricks was prone to violence.”

“As you know well from personal experience. That might explain Mr. Hoffman’s death, but it doesn’t answer the question of Mr. Stein’s.”

“Two separate crimes. Grisom nailed Stein. Hendricks nailed Hoffman.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps. We should still be open to a connection between the two. It could solve the whole puzzle. At the same time, we must not be so concerned with the single crime theory that we unnecessarily obfuscate the matter and thus overlook the solutions to two crimes.”

“I stand warned. Where now?” Having reached the car, I clicked the lock open and opened the back passenger door for Eleanor.

“Let us examine Mr. Hoffman’s home.”

“Will we be able to get in?”

“Not without my letter of reference from Chief Matthews. However, we may be able to gather some information from the outside of the building. And Mrs. Parrish might be able to tell us something.”

“Who’s she?”

“Mr. Hoffman’s landlady.” Mrs. Sperling got into the front seat.

“Oh. Right.”

It turned out that Mrs. Parish wasn’t in when we got there. The building was tan, two storied, with an archway in the middle leading to the apartments built around a courtyard with a pool. It was located off Sunset. The neighborhood was not very well kept up. Bits of paper lay in the gutters and cars sat on the small lawns in front of the apartment buildings. The pool in Hoffman’s complex was empty except for a black puddle with yellowed newspaper and a rusty tricycle sticking up out of it.

Mrs. Sperling stayed out on the front walk, while I walked around to the side of the building.

“It’s the same tan stucco as the front,” I called back to her. “There are two rows of three, four, five windows. One row on top for the second story, and then the first story row pretty much under them. All of the first story windows have black wrought iron bars on them. There’s maybe six feet between this building and the one next to it.” I came back out to the walk. “You know, there isn’t any fire escape on that wall. And if Hoffman’s apartment is right above the landlady’s, it’d have to open out there.”

“When you went into the courtyard, did you see a door with a police seal on it?”

“I couldn’t tell from the angle I was at. A couple mean looking guys came out of a ground floor apartment, and they were giving me some awful funny looks, so I thought it better to depart.”

“A wise decision. This is one area where I do think it best to leave the questioning to the Hollywood division police.”

“Still, that fire escape…”

“The sergeant was probably referring to a special window dedicated to that purpose.”

“Now I know what you mean. It must have been pretty easy to get down, too, with those buildings so close together.”

“Indeed.”

A car pulled up behind Mrs. Sperling. It was an older Chevy in bad shape, with peeling dark blue paint and numerous dents. A tired looking Black woman got out, carrying a baby and a sack of groceries. She eyed us hostily.

“Who are you folks?” she asked.

“I am Mrs. Delilah Sperling. Do you live in this building behind me?”

“I’m the manager.”

“Then you are Mrs. Bedeliah Parrish.”

“Yes. What you want?”

“Some information regarding the trouble here yesterday.”

“You from the insurance?” She almost smiled.

Mrs. Sperling caught the vocal cue. “I understand nothing was actually stolen.”

“That don’t mean nothing. That damn cop bust my door down. That’s why I called you guys. They said it was covered and it’s in my policy in black and white.”

“I’m sure it is, Mrs. Parrish. Someone will be out soon to appraise the damage. I’m investigating a related matter. Could you tell me in your own words what happened yesterday afternoon?”

“Oh, that’s simple. I was coming home from the market when I see that White cop knocking on Hoffman’s door. He look at me, and made the ugliest face, and bust the door in.”

“How did you see this when my associate just now tried to get a view of Hoffman’s door from the archway there and couldn’t see even the police seal?”

“I was coming from the other side where the garages are.”

“That would explain it. What did you do when you saw the officer break the door?”

“I didn’t see that exactly. I just saw him go in. Later, I knowed he busted it. I went into my apartment and heard the noise, but I didn’t pay it no mind cause Hoffman he was always making noise. Then the White cop, he come down and ask me to keep watch. Says there was burglars in Hoffman’s place. I don’t mind saying that scared me some, ‘specially when the cop says they killed Hoffman.”

“You haven’t had much trouble here?”

“Honey, we always got trouble. But this was the first time someone got killed in my building.”

“Well, thank you very much, Mrs. Parrish. I expect that covers it nicely. You’ve been most kind.”

“Thank you.” Mrs. Parrish moved into the building with half an eye on us.

I pulled out of there and headed for home.

 

mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Thirteen

Except for a flash of deep teal green from a high necked silk blouse, Ramona Bistler was encased in a stunning shade of ivory. Her jacket was double-breasted and hip length over a matching straight skirt that stopped several inches above her knees. Her nylons and pointed pumps with ankle straps matched perfectly.

She sat calmly on her couch. Only her chain-smoking gave away her nerves.

“Back again so soon, Delilah?” she asked. “Please sit down. I’m afraid I can’t stay long. I’ve an appointment with my lawyer.”

“I doubt we’ll be troubling you for more than a few minutes.” Mrs. Sperling made herself comfortable on an overstuffed chair next to the couch. “I was just wondering whether you happened to still have the contents of your husband’s locker at the health club.”

“I never got them. They’re still there for all I know.”

“Odd. According to the club, you sent a note with a young man to go fetch them.”

“I never did that!” Bistler was indignant. “You can’t prove I did, either.”

“Obviously. That’s why I’m here confirming it. It would appear someone has taken advantage of your grief and absconded with your husband’s toiletries.”

“Why the hell would anyone do that? That’s ridiculous!”

“Perhaps not to the person who killed your husband. I suspect there was something in that locker that was damaging. Do you know what was in the locker?”

Bistler thought. “I haven’t a clue.”

For once, I thought, she was being honest.

“Actually, you do,” said Mrs. Sperling. “The same clue I have. Soap, shampoo, conditioner, a blow dryer perhaps, shaving equipment. The normal things one finds in a person’s locker, or bathroom. What I’m wondering right now is was there anything else that might be construed as damaging to your husband’s killer? Obviously, you don’t know. But would you have any idea who might have written that note?”

“Idea?” Bistler stabbed out a half-finished cigarette and lit a new one. “No, I’m afraid not.”

“The man was described as young, tall and light-haired. Who do you know fits that description?”

“No one!” she answered quickly.

“You’re lying, Ramona. You know at least five men who could fit that description, and you’re thinking of someone specific right now.”

“Delilah Sperling, I did not allow you into my house to make wild accusations.”

“I do not make wild accusations,” Mrs. Sperling said. “But I do deduce things and everything about our recent encounters tells me that you have not been entirely honest with me regarding your relationship with your husband.”

Bistler suddenly sobbed. “I’m only trying to do what Josh would have wanted me to do.”

“So, you were his beard, so to speak,” Mrs. Sperling said.

Bistler nodded. “Okay, he was a stick in the mud. And I did marry him for his money. But we did really like each other.”

“Why did he feel the need to hide his gender orientation?” Mrs. Sperling asked.

“I don’t know,” Bistler said. “I really don’t. I think it was his family. Maybe it was something about the gallery. I don’t know. I didn’t really care. I just didn’t want to be poor and Josh totally understood that.” She sniffed. “Not having any sex pretty much sucked but I really did like Josh. We had a lot of fun joking about my affairs.” She sank into herself. “I’m sorry but I did lie about kicking him out. We really did decide it was time. Both of us. Truth be told, I think Josh was going to come out officially. He didn’t say so, but we did agree that it was time for the split. Really.”

Mrs. Sperling sat up straight and listened. “What was that?”

“What was what?” Bistler’s eyes darted towards the hall to the bedrooms.

“I heard movement.”

“Oh that. Um. We’re, uh, having a problem with rats. I’ve had the exterminators out at least three times this month already. They probably came in with some of the street people we’ve been having problems with lately.” Bistler smiled weakly.

“Yes, that would account for it. One other question, Ms. Bistler. What does the name Kyle Hoffman mean to you?”

As Bistler thought, she calmed down.

“It does sound familiar. Wait. He was at the funeral. I suppose he knew Josh, although it’s hard to imagine. Josh was real big on appearances, and Hoffman didn’t dress real well.”

“How?”

“His suit didn’t fit, for one thing. It was tight in the shoulders, baggy at the waist, and the pants were too short, which was really dreadful because he was wearing white socks.” She let out a nervous giggle. “Can you imagine wearing white socks with a suit?”

Mrs. Sperling didn’t answer. She was in another daze, trying to catch some wisp of a thought.

She sighed. “Lost it.” She shook her head. “Well, Ms. Bistler, once again you have been very helpful. Thank you very much.”

Once again, Ramona Bistler was only too glad to get rid of us.

As we walked back to the De Ville, Mrs. Sperling stumbled in front of Bistler’s Lincoln. She righted herself and continued on. I helped her and Eleanor into her car and drove off.

“Another planned trip?” I asked.

“Trip?”

“In front of Bistler’s auto.”

Mrs. Sperling cleared her throat. “Yes. It was just as I thought. The engine was still warm, and there is no sun shining. Ms. Bistler has just returned from somewhere. She was not just leaving.”

“What made you think that?”

“She had her cigarettes out, and her lighter. I heard her tamping the pack quite frequently as she dug one out. She wasn’t tamping a fresh pack as a prelude to putting it in her case. That’s a different sound altogether. Nor did I hear her digging through her purse, or fidgeting with it, as she did with nearly everything else within reach.”

“She didn’t have her purse.”

“Which is what I guessed. I believe most women who are about to leave the house keep their purses quite near. But it’s not an entirely safe assumption. It could have been she hadn’t gotten that far yet. That’s why I checked the car. If she had been going out again, I don’t think she would have had time to leave it elsewhere and still have her cigarettes in reach. She seems to keep her case with her.”

“Like a security blanket. About that rat you heard…”

“It was no rat unless they’ve taken to wearing rubber-soled shoes.”

“He, or maybe she, was down the hall in one of the bedrooms.”

“Did you see anything?”

“No. But she looked directly there when you started hearing things.”

“You’ve made a reasonable deduction. The question now is who was back there?”

“Can I make a stab at another deduction?”

“Most certainly.”

“Well, given the way she was acting when you called her a liar, how about a tall, young male with light-hair?”

“Brava. Now, who fits that description?”

“Hendricks. Hey. Maybe we’re onto something.”

“Not so fast. Glen Weir fits that description. Phillip DuPre fits that description.”

My heart sank. “Any of a thousand young men in L.A. fit that description. Even Gillian, that clerk from Devonaire, fits that description. Shoot. It looks like we’re back where we started from.”

“It only looks that way, dear. We’re getting closer with each new piece of information. Some of the pieces are even matching up.”

“For you, they may be. I’m totally confused. Where do we go now?”

“The Beverly Hills Police station. I need to speak to Sergeant Michaelson regarding the Hoffman murder, and perhaps get some references.”

Sergeant Michaelson was in and not at all surprised to find Mrs. Sperling asking about Kyle Hoffman’s death.

“It happened around four thirty. Hollywood says it’s pretty easy to tell what happened. Hoffman came home early from work, caught some young punks robbing his place, and they beat him to a pulp, probably just for the fun of it. Heaven only knows if we’ll ever get it solved. You know as well as I do that’s the kind of case that usually ends up in the pending file. Lab went over it real well. Whoever they were, they were smart enough to use gloves. Not a fingerprint there that didn’t belong.”

“Are they sure about the youths?”

“Yeah. That’s the odd thing about it. Officer Willoughby was the one who discovered the body.”

“He did? And he’s the one you don’t care for.”

“That’s him. He said Hoffman had pulled him over this morning near Stein’s gallery and told him he had a hot tip. Willoughby admits he probably should have notified me, but he was hoping to shine a little on his own.”

“Looking for a promotion, obviously, and a perfectly natural thing to do. What does he say happened?”

“He went to Hoffman’s door, heard suspicious noises inside and entered the apartment. Before he could identify himself, he was attacked by a strong youth with a ski mask on. During the struggle, the youth, and his companion escaped out the back of the apartment, down the fire escape. One of the windows in the bedroom was wide open. The lab boys didn’t find anything left behind.”

“Hm. Has the autopsy come back yet?”

Michaelson laughed. “Are you kidding? We lucked out with Stein. The coroner’s backed up to their butts this week. Considering what it looks like, they won’t put any priority on it. And I can’t blame them. They don’t have time. Their homicide men are doing the usual routine, bringing in the thugs, questioning the witnesses. The only person the landlady saw was Willoughby. She heard the struggle, but thought Hoffman was moving furniture around until Willoughby appeared and asked her to keep watch so as not to mess up any evidence in Hoffman’s apartment. According to Hollywood, she was pretty upset, and not really coherent.”

“This is pretty interesting. But somehow I feel confident that this is connected to the Stein murder.”

“Based on what? I have to agree with Hollywood. It was a couple of punks, probably doped up and after whatever they could get from Hoffman. It’s just coincidence that they happened to pick the guy who was building manager at a place another guy got killed. The Stein murder was a class act, a real sophisticated setup. This thing was brute force, pure and simple, and ugly. We both know more often than not, coincidences are just that.”

“You’re absolutely right, Sergeant. But I’m not budging from my position this time. Something doesn’t feel right about the account. What was missing?”

“Nothing that we can tell. Hoffman’s stereo and television were in the middle of the living room floor. Looks like they hadn’t gotten far when Hoffman caught them.”

“That is the likely conclusion. And the struggle took place where?”

“In a different part of the living room. Near the door. Hoffman was found flat on his back in front of the front window.”

“Another likely spot. Something is not right here. It’s almost too typical.”

“Hollywood sees it regularly. And we see it here too damned often. If you want to worry about it, Mrs. Sperling, fine. You’ve got the time. I don’t. Besides Stein, I’ve got a dead teenage girl they found off of Canon that I still haven’t identified. I’ve got a random shooting incident, and at least eight burglaries, and two robberies, and just to make life interesting three rape cases and a flasher who has taken to showing his wares in the library of all places. Have you ever tried to get an accurate description from a shook up old society broad?”

“Actually, I have. Sounds like a good place, though, with all those shelves to hide behind. If I get done with this Stein mess before you catch him, perhaps I’ll go in as a decoy. He won’t be able to show me a thing.”

Michaelson had to laugh. “But you won’t be able to describe him.”

“Height and stature, perhaps, if I hear enough. Have you gotten anything on him?”

“Sketchy. Tall, youngish, light hair, and big where it counts. That’s the only thing I can get them to agree on. He sure knows how to pick his victims. We’ve had a composite in there for a month, and he’s struck twice since then. You know what this one lady said? Composites never look like the real person. I asked her what changes we should make to improve this one. She couldn’t think of one. Another broad said the only thing she’d recognize was what he was showing, and if she hadn’t been so startled, she would have asked him to marry her.”

“Sounds gifted,” I snickered.

“Donna,” chided Mrs. Sperling in a good-natured tone, although I knew she meant it seriously. “I know the situation lends itself to lewd comments, but we needn’t make them. Well, Sergeant, I’m afraid I’ll have to leave you to your exhibitionist for the moment. Do think of me if you decide you could use a decoy.”

“I’ll put you on the list. At the top. I’ve had a lot of volunteers, but I think I’d trust you sooner than most of them.”

“Do you know if the Chief is in?”

“He went to some fundraising affair. I’ll leave him a message that you need a letter of recommendation for Hollywood.”

“That will be most kind of you, Sergeant. Donna, we’d best get going.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m right behind you.”

In the car, she directed me to a law office near Stein’s gallery.

“Why don’t you think Hoffman’s death was a coincidence?” I asked before we got there.

“A lot of reasons. One is something Ms. Bistler said, about Hoffman’s socks. I can’t think why it’s significant, but it seems like it must be. Another reason is that we know Hoffman was selling stolen artwork. The question is, where did he get it? He was doing it often enough that Phillip hoped to gain his confidence, yet why didn’t anybody notice any missing? It seems to me a sustained theft like that would have created some stir long before this. Furthermore, Phillip implied that he was not Hoffman’s only customer, and somebody was very anxious to dump some Niedemans on Dolores Carmine shortly after Stein’s death. That suggests quantity, making it harder to believe that the losses went unnoticed.”

“Could Michaelson be covering them up?”

“Not likely. It would be too easy for me to find out, and the sergeant is not that kind of person. He’s a very busy man, and he appreciates all the help he can get.”

“But you said you didn’t like the story itself.”

“I don’t. It’s too perfectly what one would expect to find. And the lab found absolutely nothing. That doesn’t make sense. Something almost invariably gets left behind, usually something useless in terms of finding the miscreants, but there is something. Not to mention the fact that these doped up punks were using gloves. Most of their kind are too unintelligent and too intoxicated to remember that. That’s the problem, too. These thugs do remember just enough times to make a coincidence probable. No. Sergeant Michaelson is not unjustified in his point of view. But he doesn’t have all of my information. I shall have to revise my report tonight.”

We arrived at the lawyer’s office right about then, but it took me several minutes to find a parking place. I finally had to settle for a public lot just off of Wilshire and Rodeo. We walked back to the office at a good clip.

That’s one thing about Mrs. Sperling. She doesn’t dawdle. She says it’s because at guide dog school the students are taught to keep up a good pace so as to keep up with the dogs. But when Eleanor starts looking winded, I say it’s because Mrs. Sperling walks fast.

Mr. Stein’s lawyer was a younger man, maybe in his mid-thirties. He wore a pin-striped suit, but he made it look stylish and trim. His name was Paul Grisom. He greeted us cordially and invited me to sit down with Mrs. Sperling.

“Mr. Grisom,” Mrs. Sperling said. “I understand you made out Mr. Joshua Stein’s will.”

“I handled all of Josh’s legal matters.”

“We’ve been given to understand that he left everything to his wife.”

“That is correct.”

“What is the likelihood of Mr. Stein’s relations fighting the will?”

“Minimal, at this point. For one thing, his parents are dead, and he had no siblings. For another, all his other relatives live in New York and are sufficiently well off so that an extended court case at this distance would not be worth it.”

“Would they have had much chance at succeeding, especially given that Mr. Stein was estranged from his wife?”

Grisom chuckled. “About an ice cube’s chance in hell. Josh revised his will to include Ramona Bistler three days after the separation papers were filed. They might get some mileage out of the sound mind clause, but in the long run, it wouldn’t be worth it, especially with the distance factor.”

“I see. Ms. Bistler’s attorney seemed to think there were fair to middling chances of the will be contested, depending on the family’s attitude towards Ms. Bistler.”

Grisom laughed full out. “Montoinne’d be thinking that. He’s a crafty shyster, alright. He’s into Bistler for the bucks, believe you me. I don’t think Josh’s relatives knew Bistler, and they wouldn’t have given a damn, anyway. Based on what Josh told me, of course.”

“Does Mr. Montoinne know this?”

“Who knows. I’d have to wait until a court case to find out. Why?”

“He seems to be keeping Ms. Bistler in the dark about a number of things.”

“You mean to put the brakes on her fooling around. That’s just playing it safe. I would’ve told her the same thing.”

“He also confessed to leading her to believe that her financial status was not as good as it is.”

“Of course he would. Money would be about the only thing that’d keep her out of every pair of pants that came along.”

“You don’t seem to have too high a regard for Ms. Bistler.”

“I didn’t like her at all. She was taking Josh for every cent she could get, and he was okay with it. I would drop hints every so often, but Josh didn’t give a damn. He liked having a wife, and if she wasn’t around that often, fine. I have good reason to believe she was his beard, if you know what I mean. Why he felt he needed to stay in the closet in this day and age, I have no idea. And for whatever reason, he wanted to be sure she’d be well off. Josh was a class A-one lulu, if you ask me. But what am I gonna do about it? I was only supposed to advise him on legal matters.”

“Do you know if Ms. Bistler knew the terms of the new will?”

“It’s possible. I have no way of knowing. It depends on when was the last time Josh spoke with her.”

“Which there is no way of knowing, and no way of asking her without tipping her off.”

“I take it you like her for Josh’s murder?”

“I don’t know at this point, Mr. Grisom. It would appear several people are involved in one way or another. I certainly can’t point the finger at anybody with the evidence I have.”

“It’s a tough one, from what I hear.”

“Speaking of that, had you heard any rumors about the gallery?”

“No. It was doing pretty well when Josh revised his will. It’s a pity Josh couldn’t leave his money to the gallery. He lived and breathed that place. I think it’s the only reason he didn’t give a damn about his wife being a money hungry slut. She looked nice at the obligatory parties, which Josh hated anyway.”

“Hm.” Mrs. Sperling mused for a moment. “What about other people Mr. Stein might have had conflicts with? I have heard he wasn’t on very good terms with a clothing designer named Devon.”

“That twit?” Grisom chuckled and shook his head. “If it was Devon that had turned up dead, then I might have had something for you. Josh could not stand him. Apparently, Devon is a spoiled baby, or so goes the local scuttlebutt. Constantly flying off the handle. Given Josh’s attitude, I’d believe it.”

“That is very interesting.” Mrs. Sperling mulled it over, then got up. “Well, Mr. Grisom, you’ve given me a few more things to think about. I appreciate your time.”

“Anytime, Mrs. Sperling.” He came around his desk and shook her hand. “I liked Josh, and it really ticked me off to see him being taken advantage of by that bitch. In some ways, I hope she did it and gets what she’s had coming to her for a long time.”

“Well, vengeance is not my job. Finding the truth is. Thank you, Mr. Grisom. You have been most cordial.”

Mrs. Sperling was lost in thought as we walked to the car.

“I have more evidence piling up against Ramona Bistler,” she complained as we got in. “And very little of it would hold water in court. There must be a connection somewhere. I keep thinking I’ve missed it. Oh. It’s too aggravating.”

“Where do we go in the meantime?”

“Are we in the neighborhood of Mr. Hendricks’ gallery?”

“Yes.”

“Oh no. I forgot to tell Sergeant Michaelson about him. On second thought, I don’t think we have enough against him to justify a search warrant.”

“You mean attacking me isn’t enough?”

“Not to look at his books. Hoffman had to be getting his prints from someplace. Perhaps Mr. Hendricks can point us in the right direction, seeing as though he had reason to bear a grudge against Mr. Stein.”