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?”
“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?”
“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.”
“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?”
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…”