The room had a comfortable feel to it, in spite of its precision neatness. The gray and rust pillows on the dark blue overstuffed sofa were perfectly aligned with the corners. A Waterford crystal lamp stood on the exact center of the dark oak top on each of two end tables. Two printed velvet wingback chairs rested at a forty-five-degree angle with another dark oak table between them. A quilted reproduction of Van Gogh’s “The Harvest” watched from the wall above the sofa. Ninety degrees away, on the adjacent wall, an intricately carved marble mantelpiece framed a brick fireplace.
The picture sat on a brass easel in front of the fireplace. Aesthetics aside, it seemed a rather awkward place for it. Not that I was in any position to question it, or rather, I didn’t think I was in any position to. I had yet to meet Mrs. Sperling.
She’d hired me the day before as her chauffeur, over the phone. Her attorney had handled all the paperwork: my DMV sheet, insurance, driver’s license. It seemed pretty strange. After all, it was a live-in position. I’d asked her if she wanted to meet me first, and she laughed and said it would be pointless, but maybe I’d like to meet her. So, there I was, in her living room, wondering why she had that huge picture on the easel.
I’d been shown through the entry hall into the room by a young man in his early twenties, if that old. He was tall but didn’t look it, with light brown hair and dressed in a trendy baggy gray sweater and faded black jeans.
He returned, and carefully adjusted the huge lace doily on the back of the sofa.
“Mrs. S. will be down in a minute,” he said in his soft tenor voice.
“Fine,” I replied. I had arrived a couple minutes early.
On his way to the wingback chairs, he passed the picture, glanced at it and sighed.
“I know,” I said. “It really doesn’t belong in here.”
He looked around. “Oo. It doesn’t.” He shook his head and shrugged. “That’s not why it’s here anyway.”
He sighed again and moved a pink Wedgwood vase a microscopic bit towards the center of the table between the two wingbacks. He noticed my puzzled look.
“A sixteenth of an inch can mean the difference between an intact vase and me paying for one,” he explained. “Mrs. S. totally has to be that tough. It’s like she’d never get through the house if everything wasn’t exactly where she knew it was gonna be.”
“Oh.” I still didn’t understand, but I decided Mrs. Sperling would enlighten me.
“By the way, my name’s Glen.” He smiled.
“I know. You told me when you came in.”
“Oh. That’s right.”
I heard a quick clicking sound from the hallway and turned towards it. A yellow Labrador retriever trotted into the room. Mrs. Sperling had asked me if I liked dogs, which I do.
“Eleanor,” Glen addressed the dog. “You’re supposed to be upstairs.”
The Lab cocked her head at me.
“It’s alright, Glen,” called Mrs. Sperling’s voice, pleasant and well-bred, even at a higher volume.
Eleanor approached me. I held out my hand for her to sniff. She seemed to approve. I scratched her throat.
“She wanted to meet Donna,” Mrs. Sperling continued as she entered the room.
She was of average height. Her elegantly tailored pale blue suit covered a somewhat padded figure. She had dark blonde hair with wisps of gray running through it, cut into what they used to call a wedge. There was something very graceful about the way she moved, which covered up how fast she did it.
She smiled knowingly at Glen. “Are you also interested in joining us?”
“For sure,” Glen replied. His attitude towards his boss was respectful but relaxed and friendly. “I mean, a new roommate and all.”
“Very well. By the way, the hall lamp…”
“Oh!” he groaned. “I’m really trying!”
“There was no damage done this time, fortunately. And don’t worry about it. You’re much further along than your predecessor was when she left, and she’d worked here five years.” She turned and addressed the air next to Glen. “So, you’re Donna Brechter.”
She shifted to face me. There was something not quite right about her eyes.
“I’m Delilah Sperling,” she said and stepped forward to shake my hand.
I closed in and took hers. “It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Sperling.”
“The pleasure is mutual. Should I have Glen show you around, or do you have any questions?”
“Not really.” I looked around a little nervously.
Mrs. Sperling chuckled. “You’re wondering who I am and if I’m on the right side of the law.”
“No!” I blushed. “Well, a little. It just seemed weird that you were satisfied with a phone interview, that you didn’t want to see me first.”
“I said it would be pointless.” Mrs. Sperling seemed to be enjoying some joke that I had missed. Even Glen was in on it. “But if you think it’s that important, why don’t you describe yourself.”
“Physically, your appearance.”
That stumped me. After all, I was standing right in front of her. Then it dawned on me. Her eyes weren’t quite right. The left one was clouded over and unfocused. The right eye looked inward and twitched steadily.
“Sure.” I took a deep breath. “I’m five-eight, one hundred and twenty pounds. I’ve got brown hair, blue eyes. My hair’s real long, down to my waist. I’ve got very long arms, also. Frankly, if I could only use one word to describe myself, that would be it: long.”
Mrs. Sperling chuckled. “Indeed. I believe you said you are a dancer?”
“Only when it doesn’t interfere with my work here,” I said quickly.
“I doubt it will. But why chauffeuring?”
“I heard the money was good, and I like to drive. I don’t mind odd hours, either.”
“Excellent.” She smiled. “Not that I expect there’ll be many of them. I lead a quieter life than most of my peers.”
“I do lead a quieter life,” Mrs. Sperling insisted.
“You just don’t party,” said Glen.
Mrs. Sperling sighed and turned back to me. “The picture on the easel. Would you try to describe it for me?”
I looked at it carefully. “Well, it’s a print, a real good one. Um. It’s a picture of a woman with her hair pinned up and wearing a necklace and nothing else. The picture stops at her waist. Um. Do you mind if I ask how much you can see, and how long you’ve been that way?”
Her eyebrow lifted. “I am completely blind and have been since birth. Why do you ask?”
I swallowed. “I just wanted to know if color meant anything to you.”
“A valid question. Color does have meaning, but I suspect not in quite the same way it would for you. For me, blue is water or cold ice. Red is blood, warm and sticky.”
“Yeah. I think I got it. Um. The woman’s skin is white, like a crisp sheet. She’s very sharply defined with black lines… Um, like a narrow rail. The style is almost realistic, maybe like the difference between an ancient Greek sculpture and something from the twentieth century. The necklace is burgundy, like wine, and so are her lips. Her eyes are purple like velvet or flowers. The background is grayish blue, almost a gunmetal color. Surrounding the whole thing is a border that’s gray like satin. The bottom border is much wider than the rest, and it has Niedeman written on it in black.”
“That’s sufficient.” Mrs. Sperling seemed to be laughing. “You did very well, Donna. Do you think you can continue along those lines for me?”
“This shall work out better than I thought. That picture is a limited-edition serigraph by the late artist, Hans Niedeman. He was the American-born son of German immigrants and only died roughly two years ago. Since that time, his widow released a series of fifteen limited edition commemorative serigraphs of his work. This is HN6. Glen obtained it the other day through a special arrangement.”
“He got a good deal?” I asked.
“Not really. It’s a fake.”
“Oh.” I grimaced as Glen sighed.
“It’s an excellent forgery,” continued Mrs. Sperling. “I’m told the counterfeiter even got the texture right. But genuine Niedeman serigraphs have a distinctive smell that this one does not.” She paused for a moment. “Do you have any further questions?”
“Would you care to see your rooms?”
“Unless you’ve got someplace you want to go first.”
“Yes, I think I would prefer to.” She nodded. “Thank you. After you sign your W-2s and insurance papers, please help Glen wrap the Niedeman. We are going to confront Mr. Joshua Stein.”
“The gentleman who sold Glen the Niedeman?” I cocked a hopeful grin at her.
Her eyebrow lifted and she smiled. “Yes.”
The paperwork didn’t take long to fill out. I was happy to be employed, and it looked like the job would be a lot of fun, not to mention the major advantage of moving out of my folks’ place. My parents wanted me out. Well, I was twenty-six, the oldest, and the only one of my siblings still living at home.
Glen appeared with a long sheet of brown wrapping paper. It was a bit of a struggle getting the paper around the frame. The picture was more awkward than heavy. Mrs. Sperling entered the room as we finished, Eleanor at her side in the traditional harness.
“Shall we be going?” she asked. She handed me a full keychain. “Here are your keys, Donna. We’ll go ahead and take the DeVille. We don’t want to be too intimidating. Those keys are on the end of the ring, on the left side.”
The chain was a brass half-ring, with a large ball on one end, and a two-inch chain dangling from the other. The car was a tan four-door Cadillac DeVille with a computerized dashboard. The darned thing even talked to me, reminding me to put on my seat belt.
Mrs. Sperling sat up front with me, and Glen sat in the back with Eleanor. There’s always plenty of traffic in L.A., even in Beverly Hills, however, that morning it was lighter than normal. We made good time.
It was a gorgeous November day, with brilliant blue skies, and crisp nippy air. It had been cold the past few nights. The days didn’t warm up that much, either. We’d had rain the week before, and the nearby mountains were sporting white tops.
The studio we wanted was in the Rodeo Drive district, a couple blocks over from Rodeo, itself. The building was at the end of the block. It was a tan brick edifice with three stories that had been built sometime in the 1940s, I guessed. There was a door built into the corner leading into a narrow foyer with a spiral staircase in front of an elevator, and another glass-fronted door leading into the gallery. That door was locked.
“That’s odd,” mused Mrs. Sperling.
I shivered. It was surprisingly cold in the foyer.
“It should be open,” Glen said. “It was yesterday.”
I pressed against the glass with shaded eyes. “It’s not today. There’s no one in there, and no lights on. Wait. I think there’s a light coming from the back.”
“Then that’s where we’ll go.” Mrs. Sperling turned and swung her arm in front of her. “Eleanor, forward.”
We went around the corner to the alley that ran behind the block. The building’s back door was easy to find. It was open, but not to the studio. That door was next to a flight of stairs that led into the rest of the building.
“Hello?” Mrs. Sperling called. She lightly felt along the wall and tried the studio door. It was locked tight. She banged on it. “Hello?”
“Hey! Who the hell’s down there?” The voice came from outside and above.
Mrs. Sperling, Eleanor, Glen and I stumbled over each other going outside.
“Excuse us, sir,” Mrs. Sperling addressed the roof. “We’re looking for Mr. Stein.”
A round head of dark curly hair appeared over the edge.
“You are? Why? The building’s closed.”
“It is?” Mrs. Sperling asked. “We were just out front, and it appears there’s a light on in the back. Could it be that Mr. Stein is here after all?”
“A light, huh.” The head disappeared. A few seconds later we heard bumping feet on the stairs, and the head with the rest of its body arrived. He was short and paunchy and wearing a Twisted Sister t-shirt with faded 501 jeans.
“We’d be open, but there was a big problem yesterday afternoon,” he said going through a set of keys. “Uh, power failure.” He looked up at us. “I’m Kyle Hoffman, the building manager.”
He chose a key and opened the door. Mrs. Sperling went in first. She sniffed and frowned. Eleanor growled softly, then whined. I stepped in and looked around.
“He’s not here,” I said, shivering again. It wasn’t any warmer in the gallery back room.
“I think he may be.” Mrs. Sperling had a strange, grim half-smile on her face as if the situation both excited and repulsed her.
Glen pushed his way in. “Look!” He pointed. “An HN6!” He scrambled over to the middle of the room, where there was a table with a long, flat wooden box on it. Above it was hanging the Niedeman serigraph. “We’ve got him… Oh, my God!”
Glen came reeling back, his face a pale green color. I foolishly went to see what had gotten him that way. I came back the same color.
“I assume you’ve discovered why the studio is not open,” Mrs. Sperling said.
“Oh, you betcha,” I groaned. “He’s awful red, but I think he’s dead.”