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.”

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.”

 

mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Twelve

Sore and stiff, notwithstanding, I went to class the next morning. Back at the house, I showered quickly and dressed even faster. As I left my room, Glen tore down the hall.

“I’m late for class,” he gasped and handed me a bundle of envelopes. “Will you give Mrs. S. her mail? And a messenger just delivered that big envelope for Phil DuPre. You know why he was here last night?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“He said you could open it since it wasn’t going to be here by the time he had to leave.” Glen ditched into his room, grabbed books and jacket, and sped back up the hall.

I went into the kitchen. Mrs. Sperling was eating, as usual: veal chops, glazed carrots, broccoli and thin crepes with powdered sugar. I sat down and helped myself.

“Good morning,” Mrs. Sperling said.

“Good morning. Morning, Mrs. Osgood.”

“Good morning, Donna. I also have carrot bran muffins, if you like.”

“They smell like they’re fresh, too. Thanks.” I took a warm muffin from the basket offered by Mrs. Osgood and spread butter across the top. It melted, and I had to lick up the little rivulets as they dribbled down the side.

“Did you see Phillip before he left?” Mrs. Sperling asked.

“No. Did you see him?”

“I talked to him briefly.” She smiled facetiously.

“Funny,” I grumbled, unamused.

Mrs. Sperling frowned. “Were you hurt also last night?”

“I’m a little sore. I’m grouchy ’cause I’m worried about something. There was a reporter from the Enterprise at the bar last night after the trouble broke out. He recognized You-Know-Who. My mother just happens to love the Enterprise and that gossip they post. You-Know-Who told my brother that you’re a P.I. last night. My parents are going to be worried sick. If my mom sees that article, if it exists, they won’t stop pestering me until I’m back safe in the womb again.”

“It can’t be helped now. Phillip told me what happened after the man struck you.”

“That was Edgar Hendricks. He was lying about Wednesday night, through his teeth. The bartender never saw him, and she seems reliable.”

“Given Mr. Hendricks’ reaction, I wouldn’t doubt her word. Well, that opens up a whole other line of possibility. You set something on the table when you sat down. What was it?”

“Your mail. Glen gave it to me as he ran off.”

“Oh, good. Please go through it with me.”

I thumbed through the stack. “Mostly bills, it looks like.”

“Those go to my accountant.”

“A Braille magazine. You’ll have to figure out what it is.”

“I’ll have to teach you Braille someday.”

“A big envelope from D. Froman, postmarked San Francisco.”

“A letter from my brother. I’ll deal with that. It’s probably deathly dull anyway. I’m afraid Dale is the black sheep of our family. He became a banker, married a lovely wife, had two lovely children and went to live in the suburbs.”

I snickered. “For shame, for shame. You also have a postcard. From Nepal.”

“My parents.” She brightened. “Do read it.”

“Let’s see. What handwriting!”

“That’s my father. Everyone complains about it.”

“Alrighty. ‘Hello, Dolly. Having a smashing time, but is it cold in the hills! Had to stop our climb. The guide was afraid your mother wouldn’t make it. It’s gorgeous here, but Philly says you wouldn’t like it. You’d have to keep your gloves on all the time and you wouldn’t see a thing. Tally ho. Off to India. Love, P. and P.”

“I figured they would while they were in the neighborhood.”

“Go to India, you mean? Your folks get around.”

“My father has a strong aversion to moss, physical or mental. Fortunately, my mother is blessed with an equal amount of energy.”

“Who’s Philly?”

“My mother. It’s short for Philadelphia. My grandfather was born and raised in that city and put his foot down when the baby was named. Grandma was aghast but too well-bred to argue. My mother comes from a long line of New York society people.”

I picked up the envelope addressed to Him. “May as well open this. I was told I could open it. Oh, great. Just what I was looking for.”

“A copy of the Los Angeles Enterprise?”

“Right, as always.” I thumbed through the first section. “Oh, damn!” I spread the newspaper next to me. “Here it is. Director involved in Westwood bar fight. At approximately eleven o’clock last night, in Emil’s bar in Westwood, movie director Phillip DuPre became involved in an altercation with an assailant later identified as Edgar Hendricks, the owner of an art gallery in Beverly Hills. According to witnesses, Hendricks attacked an unidentified female at the bar, when DuPre stepped in and wrestled Hendricks to the floor. Hendricks struck DuPre with a shoe and escaped. DuPre sustained minor injuries and later left Emil’s under his own power. Hendricks is believed to be still at large.” I looked up. “That’s it.”

“A small story like that, there’s a good possibility your parents will miss it.”

“Or they may not realize I was involved. Wait a minute, he didn’t tell Peter his last name. My parents will never know.”

Mrs. Sperling nodded, then got up and summoned Eleanor.

“Why don’t we take the De Ville today,” she said as we went out back. “I understand there’s a chance of rain, and we have to confront Ms. Bistler again, so we want some authority. I’m also thinking we may want to visit Mr. Hendricks’ gallery, too.”

“I don’t know. After last night.”

“I would guess that the newspaper has good reason to believe Mr. Hendricks is indeed still at large. We also have to explore the Hoffman matter. It’s probably coincidental, but I’ve a nagging suspicion it’s not.”

Mrs. Sperling stopped and faded into one of her thinking dazes. I didn’t notice at first as I was pulling the De Ville out of the garage. She wasn’t paying attention as she loaded Eleanor in the back seat, then got in the front next to me.

“Your seatbelt,” I reminded her.

“Oh, yes.” She snapped it on. “That’s something that simply did not occur to me before, and yet it fits in perfectly with the concept of a conspiracy.”

She turned to me, fully conscious. “I just now remembered that all of Glen’s other serigraphs are genuine. He got them from Mr. Stein’s gallery, which is why he was so surprised when I noticed that his HN6 was a fake. If Phillip’s art is all genuine, which I’m fairly certain it is, and he has been getting it from Mr. Hoffman for some time, then there must be a break in Mr. Hoffman’s pattern somewhere, which in turn, could lead us to Mr. Stein’s murderer.”

“Could Hoffman have done it?”

“Then why was he killed? There must be some sort of conspiracy going on, with the counterfeiting being a new element. Niedemans aren’t cheap, but they don’t bring in that much money compared to some other things. In a way, it’s almost a perfect theft. Who would notice a five hundred dollar print missing when you’ve many other originals for tens of thousands? And if it’s worth murder to protect, then there must be other thefts involved, and other people, too. Remember Ms. Bistler’s gas purchase? She is a fairly lightweight woman, judging from the pitch of her voice. She couldn’t have moved her husband’s dead body without some help.”

“What if she works out?”

“Unfortunately, she strikes me as being the type of person who is too lazy to exercise beyond what is absolutely necessary to maintain her figure. One doesn’t gain that much strength just doing aerobic dance.”

“So you think she did it.”

“She certainly had motive, and it would appear opportunity. We know she’s lying about that night, but I couldn’t call that sufficient evidence to convict her. It’s too circumstantial. Frequently that’s the best you can get. But when it’s this sketchy, and I fail to find any more, I look in other directions. I, unlike the police, have the time to do so. It doesn’t help, more often than not, which is why the police can usually be relied upon to bring the guilty to the courts. Whether or not justice is done is another story and not any of my business beyond that of a concerned citizen.”

Neither, really, was her investigation. But I declined to say so. Mrs. Sperling had a client, and she was entitled to sell her skills at whatever price she wanted, even nothing. She didn’t need or want the money anyway.

“Where to first?” I asked.
“Why don’t we take care of your car first?”

“I suppose,” I grumbled.

At the garage, I held out for seven hundred and fifty dollars and got it in cash. It felt funny cleaning out the Altima.

“I thought I was going to have a party the day I got rid of that turkey,” I told Mrs. Sperling as we left.

“Our cars are a part of us, even when unwelcome.”

“I just don’t know what I’ll do for a new one.”

“Feel free to use any of my cars, as you see fit. There’s no point in them just sitting around most of the time.”

“Thanks.” I laughed. “I can just see driving myself to McDonald’s in the limousine.”

Mrs. Sperling winced. “The thought of driving to any fast food emporium in any type of vehicle is not a pleasant one.”

“I’ll have to take you to Tommy’s someday. They have a chili burger people have been known to kill for.”

“From what I understand about the neighborhood it’s in, that’s not at all surprising.”

“It’s the safest place in L.A. Where to now?”

“Ms. Ramona Bistler’s.”

“On the double.”

 

 

mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Eleven

It was just after nine when we arrived at Emil’s. It was a bar and restaurant with no dance floor that catered to big business hot shots who worked on Wilshire. Mickey, Tina, and Earl were there. Mickey stood at the bar with a small crowd around him. I could see him working a routine as if he were at a nightclub. Next to him, on the bar, was a glass filled with change and a few bills.

It happened occasionally. Mickey would be entertaining a small group of friends. The group would slowly grow larger as more and more people started listening in. Mickey would set up a glass with some change in it, claiming that he didn’t mind going public with his conversations as long as people paid up. He’d gotten thrown out of a few bars that way, but most bartenders didn’t care.

“The bouncer comes in.” Mickey mugged, instantly turning his body into a Neanderthal. “This guy flunked basketweaving. He says ‘Me bouncer, you dead meat.’ I said ‘But can you shuffle off to Buffalo?'” Mickey did. “He couldn’t. I could. I dazzled him with the fancy footwork and lost three teeth. But, hey, it’s a learning experience, right?”

The group roared. Mickey went on with his Saturday Morning cartoon routine: Muppet Babies meet the Ninja Turtles. Mickey had seen me and who I walked in with. But Mickey is a professional first and foremost. He didn’t miss a beat.

I, on the other hand, was more than a little uncomfortable. I didn’t have an ice cube’s chance in hell with Phillip DuPre, but I didn’t need my ex-boyfriend, who was still in love with me, hanging around at the same time. He’d recognized Mickey, too.

He walked over and put a folded bill into Mickey’s glass. Mickey went right on without blinking. I found Tina and Earl sitting in a large booth in the back corner and steered Him that way.

Tina, thank heavens, is too cool to let anyone see her jaw drop. Earl, of course, didn’t know Phillip DuPre from Ma Bell, so he didn’t care.

“Hi, Donna,” Earl said, getting up. “Nice to see you. Who’s your friend?”

“I’m Phil,” He said casually and shook Earl’s hand. He smiled at Tina. “Tina Paulson, right?”

“Yeah.” Tina smiled back. She was too cool to talk, however.

“You know Tina?” Earl asked.

“I saw her at the audition today.”

“Oh, you’re a dancer.”

“Not professionally. I do dance.”

“Really?” asked Tina.

He nodded. “I studied ballet all through college. Started too late to do anything with it, though.”

“Oh.” Tina grinned. “So how did you and Donna hook up?”

“We’re not hooked up,” I said quickly. “I mean…”

“Uh, Aunt Delilah-” He stammered. “I mean, Donna’s boss. She’s an old friend of the family. A courtesy aunt.”

“She says there’s safety in numbers,” I said, then smiled weakly at Him. “Not that I mind. I mean, I’m glad you came.”

“So am I,” He replied quickly.

Mickey called it quits, singing a little theme song that sounded suspiciously like the old “Tonight Show” theme. Grabbing a fresh drink and his glass, he wandered over and squeezed in next to Earl and Tina.

“We must allow august personages some room,” he said, mugging.

“I don’t see why,” Phillip DuPre said, pleasantly. “I was born in May.”

Well, that broke the ice, at least as far as Mickey and Tina were concerned. I was still hopeless.

“So, Earl, are you in the business?” He asked.

“No. I’m not that crazy. I’m a resident up at the medical center.”

Mickey counted his money. “Crap. Somebody put in a fifty.” He looked at Him.

“Not me.” He grinned. “I didn’t catch the whole act.”

“What took you guys so long to get here?” asked Tina.

“We had to go out to Pasadena,” I explained. “My brother wanted his Niedeman back.”

“Geez. Introducing Phil to Peter already?” Mickey snorted. He was a little bitter.

“My car broke down, and Mrs. Sperling had him give me a ride.”

“That’s a hell of a ride.”

We all shifted. Mickey sighed. He looked at Him.

“Listen, I don’t know what kind of understanding you two got, but can I talk to her for a few minutes?”

“Mickey!” I groaned. “Why don’t you just ask me?”

“Okay. Can we?”

Mickey slid out of the booth. I could see him fighting the jealousy. I followed him to the other side of the bar.

He sighed. “Look, I know I haven’t got any right to demand an explanation, but I would like to know what the hell is going on.”

“My boss introduced us. She’s known him since childhood, his, of course. That’s all there is to it.”

“Oh, really.”

“What difference does it make? He and I do not have a relationship.”

Mickey groaned. “Donna, get real.”

“Okay. I’ve got a crush on him.”

“Just slightly. You sure he’s not using you?”

“For what?”

“For what I used you for!”

“Mickey, you never used me.”

“Donna, you know I did. And I’d do it again if we ever got back together, and we both know it.”

“And you’re still jealous.”

“Yeah. A lot. But how would you feel if I started hanging with some gorgeous powerful lady?”

“Probably the same.” I sighed. “But we’re not hanging.”

“Then why is he here?”

“We’re verifying an alibi. So I happen to be nuts over him. I’m sorry, Mickey. I don’t want to hurt you. But I’m not going to live like a nun just because we can’t live with each other, and I don’t expect you to do the same.”

“That’d be a little hard.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Yeah.” He sighed again. “You ever read ‘Little Women’?”

“Who hasn’t?”

“I feel like Laurie right after Jo turned him down.”

“Have you met my sister, Denise?”

“Yeah. She’s a nice kid. You got her number?”

“If you call her, don’t let my dad know. You got a pen?”

“No. Now what?”

“I’ll bum one off the bartender. I’ve got to ask her some questions anyway.”

“Alright. I’ll stand guard.”

“Did anything happen the last time?”

Mickey shook his head and went back to the booth. He said something to Phillip DuPre, and they both watched me. I was about to crown Mickey, then thought it was just as well. I looked around the bar to see if Mr. Hendricks was around. He wasn’t.

On the other hand, Devon was. Strangely enough, he was surrounded by women at two small tables near the front.

I squeezed onto a vacant barstool. The bartender, a young woman about my age with lots of hair, came up for my order.

“A white wine, please,” I said. “And do you have a pen?”

“A singles’ joint like this?” Grinning, she handed me one. “You’re the twentieth person tonight.” She poured my drink with professional ease.

“You usually work Wednesday nights?”

“Every night except Monday and Tuesday.”

“How well do you know the regulars?”

“Pretty well. A few of them, very well. Why?”

“Last Wednesday, a friend set me up for a blind date, only I chickened out. We were supposed to meet here, and I think he chickened out also. His name’s Edgar Hendricks, and he says he was here all evening, ate dinner, then picked up on a chick and brought her home.” I settled in better as the woman next to me left.

“Ed Hendricks?” The bartender laughed. “Since when? Well, maybe once or twice. He’s one of those thinks he’s so hot types. Most the ladies round here don’t need that kind of jerk. They put up with him, but he only scores once in a blue moon.”

“Was he here last Wednesday?”

“Let’s see. That was the night Harry got sick. No, Ed was definitely not around for that.”

“Are you positive?”

“Very. Ed would’ve gotten sick, too.”

“Well, doesn’t that beat all.” I wrote my sister’s phone number on a cocktail napkin. “He did lie. Somehow, I’m glad I chickened out.”

“You didn’t chicken out.” Ed Hendricks appeared from nowhere and grabbed my upper arm. “You’re checking up on me.”

I stayed cool. “With good reason, it would appear. You weren’t here Wednesday night. Where were you?”

“I don’t have to tell you.”

“But I still know you lied, and my boss will know, too. Why don’t you-”

I didn’t get to finish. Hendricks backhanded me so hard, I fell off the stool. He was on me in a second, yanking me up, bruising my arms with the force of his grip.

A leather-covered arm dropped around Hendricks’ neck in a stranglehold. Hendricks hung on, dragging me along as Phillip DuPre pulled him back.

“Let her go!” He yelled.

Hendricks sent me sprawling backward, then kicked Phillip DuPre in the shins and struggled out of His grasp. He grabbed at Hendricks and missed. Hendricks turned toward Him and tried to run for the door.

People screamed and pulled bar stools out of the way. Phillip DuPre dived. Hendricks got caught and pulled down. Squirming and flailing, Hendricks refused to be pinned. He twisted on his back, swung, and missed. Pulling back, Phillip DuPre lost some of His grip on Hendricks. Hendricks squirmed closer to the door.

Grabbing Hendricks’ arms was like trying to catch a windmill. Hendricks’ legs whipped about, too, keeping Him straddled over Hendricks’ hips, lest the flailing legs put Him out of commission. He flopped down onto Hendricks’ left shoulder and immobilized that arm. Hendricks twisted his hips.

The shoe came from nowhere. One second, Hendricks’ right hand was empty and the next the dark loafer crashed onto Phillip DuPre’s ear. He pulled back in pain. The loafer struck again, landing on His shoulder.

“Yo-yo-yo-yo-yo-yo-yo-yo-yo!” The cry rang out even over the screaming and shouts.

Mickey stood on a nearby table and beat his chest. For a split second, everyone froze.

“To the rescue!” Mickey dove into the fracas.

I scrambled to pull Phillip DuPre back. He scrambled to catch Hendricks. Mickey reached for Hendricks and got Him. Hendricks scrambled between Mickey’s legs and got out the door. The three of us fell over each other like the Three Stooges running out after him. Hendricks took off down Broxton, towards Westwood Boulevard. I ran after Hendricks. Mickey ran next to me.

Hendricks crossed the three-way intersection. Tires squealed as cars slammed on their brakes and metal crunched. People were all over. Mickey stopped me at the corner.

“He’s gone.”

“Dead?”

“No. We lost him. We’ll never get through this crowd.”

Something was missing. “Where’s, uh..?”

“Phil? He’s still at Emil’s. He couldn’t make it. Said for me to go with you.”

“He’s hurt? Oh no!”

I ran back to Emil’s even faster. He sat in a booth near the back. Earl flashed a penlight in His eyes, checking for dilation. Tina held a towel to His ear. A large distinguished looking man in a white shirt, black vest, tie, and pants solemnly watched the proceedings.

“How’s your head feel?” Earl asked.

“Okay, except for my ear,” He replied.

Earl grinned at me. “Looks like your gladiator is fine. His ear’s cut, but the bleeding’s slowing down. Probably won’t need stitches.”

“Oh, no.” Sniffing, I flopped down next to Him. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright,” Phillip DuPre sighed. “At least you didn’t get hurt.”

Mickey appeared. “He got away. It was my fault. Sorry.”

“I don’t care,” He said. “Your damned Tarzan act saved my ass.”

“It is him,” said an average sized man coming up. “Excuse me, Mr. DuPre, I’m Levi Stims, from the L.A. Enterprise.”

He groaned and uttered something foul.

“Will you get out of here?” I snapped.

The large distinguished looking man stepped in.

“Mr. Stims, I appreciate your interest, but I must ask you to leave my guest alone.”

“And who are you?”

“I own this place.”

“But I’ve got a photographer coming!”

“He will not be allowed to enter.”

Mickey slipped away.

“You can’t do that,” protested Stims. “Freedom of the press.”

“This is private property. I am well within my rights to refuse entrance, and to evacuate people when necessary.”

Stims took the hint and left.

“We’d better get you out the back,” said the owner to Phillip DuPre. “Provided the doctor thinks you can be moved safely.”

“Hell with him.” He winced as He got up. “I’m moving anyway.”

Tina hung onto His ear, as I wedged myself under His arm. I could only hope He wouldn’t notice how hard my heart was beating.

“Where did Mickey go?” I asked.

“To get my car,” said Earl. “He anticipated our good host’s intentions.”

For someone in as much pain as He was, He moved pretty quickly. The kitchen glared after the soft light in the bar. At the back door, Earl looked around, then waved. The sound of his Honda Civic roared up.

Tina, Phillip DuPre, and I squeezed into the back seat. We were barely settled before Earl was in the passenger seat and Mickey peeled out.

“Oh, I love sneaky escapes!” Mickey chortled.

“Sort of makes up for missing out on the fight, does it?” Tina teased.

“Damn you, Phil,” Mickey complained good-naturedly. “You get my girl, and you hog the fight. How are we supposed to get along?”

Phillip DuPre laughed weakly. I directed Mickey to the parking lot where His BMW was. Mickey helped us out of the Honda.

“Can you drive?” he asked Him.

“I can,” I heard myself say.

“Thank you, guys,” He smiled. It was gorgeous. “For everything.”

“No sweat.” Mickey lightly punched His good arm. “You take good care of her now.”

“Mickey, leave!” I yelped, turning purple.

Mickey nodded, then traded places with Earl. I waited until the Honda had disappeared before getting the keys. I helped Phillip DuPre into the passenger seat, then ran around, and slid behind the wheel. He looked at me.

“Um. We’d better got back to Aunt Delilah’s. She’ll want a report.”

“Won’t she be asleep?”

“No. She stays up pretty late.”

Mrs. Sperling was up. We found her in the living room. The lights were on, although it was some minutes before it dawned on me that they didn’t have to be.

“Donna?” Mrs. Sperling asked. “Is someone with you?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s me,” He said. “We had a little problem tonight, and I’m a little sore.”

“Oh, dear. Phillip, I really wish you’d take some self-defense training. What happened?”

“Edgar Hendricks caught me checking up on him,” I said. “He was really mad that I was, and he wasn’t there last Wednesday. I also saw Devon there. You know, the clothes designer?”

“Hm.” Mrs. Sperling mused. “Was he also there last Wednesday?”

“I didn’t get a chance to check,” I sighed.

“Nonetheless, it’s been a profitable evening. You’d both best get to bed. Phillip, come on up to the guest bedroom.”

 

 

mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Ten

I looked good when I went to that audition. My hair was up in a long curled ponytail. My make-up had all the highlights I could get away with. I wore my sexiest leotard, a shimmery gray one with narrow straps, a diving back, and leg holes cut up to my elbows. My tights were a shimmery neutral color that matched my tan dance shoes. My black leg warmers had flecks of silver in them.

I did not look that hot on the way there. It was cold and close to sunset. To keep warm, I had on my rip-stop pants and my beat up jacket. But the only person who would see me in those was the girl at the sign in sheet.

She was bored, as usual, and showed me into the warm-up studio.

“Here’s the last one,” she said.

“Fine,” said the choreographer. He was a short, dumpy little guy I’d seen many times before and had yet to learn his name. “You’ve got five minutes to warm up.”

I noticed he wasn’t talking to just me, but also to the other fifteen people in the room. I stripped down, put my pants and jacket in my dance bag, changed from my running shoes to my dance shoes, and pulled out a shimmery, sheer dance skirt.

“Donna’s dressed to kill,” laughed a familiar voice as I tied the skirt around me.

“Mickey!” I yelped. I bounded over and kissed him.

“Donna! Thank God, they called you.” Tina came over and hugged me. “I swear, if they hadn’t, I was going to go straight over and bounce your agent on his ear. You’re looking good. You must have heard who’s directing this thing. You know, that babe of all babes, Phillip DuPre.”

“Uh, yeah, I heard.”

“Rats,” said Mickey. “I thought she was breathing heavy because of me.”

“Shut up, Dooley.” Tina slugged him in the arm.

We all three warmed up, stretching out our muscles, bouncing about.

“Alright,” the choreographer boomed out. “I’ll be teaching you the audition. When you get inside, they’ll work with you. Everybody get partners, male/female, please.”

I grabbed Mickey. Tina didn’t mind. She had an equally good partner. It was a tough routine. After four run-throughs, it looked like we all had it.

A wave of dancers flowed into the studio from the taping room. As they abated, Phillip DuPre appeared, talking to someone in the room.

“Why don’t you start running through it?” He said. “I’ve got a phone call to make.”

He turned into the studio and spotted me. I froze. He smiled at me, then the others then pulled his iPhone out of his pants pocket and dialed.

Tina nudged me. “There he is. The Phillip DuPre. Couldn’t you just die?”

“Yeah,” I whispered. Tina didn’t know the half of it.

I strained to hear what He was saying. It was noisy in the studio, and all I could catch were bits and pieces.

“I’m one of his clients…for one of… Oh. I, uh, that’s too bad… No…” Music drowned out the rest for good. He hung up and disappeared into the taping room.

Mickey looked at me curiously.

“You really have the hots for him,” he observed dryly.

“So? Let’s run through the routine again.”

We kept dancing. It’s what you’re supposed to do, anyway. You wait till after the audition to visit. Even if Mickey had noticed I was acting a little funny over Phillip DuPre, it didn’t affect our dancing. The old magic was still there.

In the audition room, the Phillip DuPre behind the table was completely different from the quiet guy who’d shown up at Mrs. Sperling’s. There, she was in charge, and He seemed content to let her call the shots. At the audition, this same guy was the boss and knew it, and while He didn’t rub it in, He didn’t give up one ounce of authority, either.

“Good afternoon,” He told us after a friendly smile. “You’ll be doing the routine as a group, then as couples. I’m looking for good, precision dancing. I want it sharp, and I want it clean. If you want to show me something, you’ll get your chance later.”

I had about a second to reflect that Mrs. Sperling was right about Him keeping His biases separate, then we worked. And worked. And worked some more. I was dying when we left the room.

“Geez, that was hard,” Tina gasped as we got our outdoor clothes on over our leotards. “I hope I did okay.”

“I think I did,” said Mickey. He looked at me. “You kicked butt, babe.”

“Thanks,” I gasped.

“Donna,” said Tina. “Earl’s working again. Mickey and I were planning on going out to happy hour for dinner after this. You want to come with us?”

“Well…” I hesitated, trying to figure things out. “Mrs. Sperling is expecting me for dinner. But she wants me to run an errand to Emil’s later.”

“We’ll meet you there,” said Mickey. “Say, what, nine o’clock?”

“Okay,” I said. “Tina?”

“Sure,” she said. “Earl will be off by then, too. Come on, Mickey.” She hugged me. “You did great.”

“You did, too,” I answered.

“Later, pard.” Mickey reached over and gave me a good sound kiss.

As he left, I turned back into the studio and froze. Phillip DuPre stood in the doorway with one eye on me, talking to one of the men he’d been with. They moved out of the way to let the rest of the people out. Struggling into my jacket, I fled with them.

My beat up old Altima sat near the studio’s doors. Shaking, I unlocked it and got in, then fumbled around the floor to find my keys, which I’d dropped. I finally got them, for all the good it did. The car wouldn’t start. Swearing, I popped the hood latch, ran around front, and propped open the hood, which did about as much good as finding my keys.

“Hi.”

My heart stopped. Phillip DuPre stood on the sidewalk, looking at me with a half-smile on His gorgeous face.

“Hi,” I said, swallowing.

“Car trouble?”

“Yeah.” I blushed. “You’d think someone who drives a car for a living would know more about the insides.” I slammed the hood shut. “I’ve gotta call the Triple-A.”

“I’ll wait with you,” he said as I got my mobile phone from my car.

“You don’t have to,” I said dialing.

“No. It’s okay.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah,” He said as the operator came on.

I gave him the address, he told me it would take up to thirty minutes, and I was to stand next to the car. I hung up with a nervous sigh.

“Something wrong?” He asked.

“Sort of. It’s going to be at least thirty minutes and I’ve got to wait by the car.”

“It’s getting dark.” He glanced up and down the street.

Cars whooshed past the battered buildings. It wasn’t a bad neighborhood, just not a good one for a woman waiting around alone after dark.

“Yeah. I’ll be okay.”

“I’ll wait with you,”

“Oh. Gee.” My stomach did three kinds of somersaults and my tongue felt paralyzed. “You don’t have to. He said thirty minutes, so you know it’s going to be at least an hour.”

“I don’t mind.”

So we waited. I called Mrs. Sperling. Then we more or less exchanged nervous grins until the tow truck arrived. I was towed to the nearest repair station. He followed in his car, without being asked. I guess He assumed I’d need a ride, which I did. So we exchanged more nervous smiles all the way to Mrs. Sperling’s.

He stayed for dinner. Mrs. Sperling had me change, suggesting that I might as well get dressed for my errand that night. We ate in the dining room.

“So, what’s wrong with your car?” Mrs. Sperling asked me after we’d said grace.

He’d made the same sloppy sign of the cross that only a true believer makes. Then He stared at his plate as he ate.

“Um, the mechanic said he’d have a full list for me tomorrow afternoon,” I sighed. “On the other hand, he said he’d give me five hundred for it.”
“For the parts, I presume,” said Mrs. Sperling. “Does five hundred sound fair to you, Phillip?”

“Um, yeah. I’d hold out for seven fifty. The worst he can do is say no.”

“I still need a car,” I said. “I might be able to work out a loan with my parents, or even use the money from this one as a down payment.”

“That sounds like an excellent plan, Donna. So, Phillip, have you heard from your supplier yet?”

Everything about Him stopped. He set down His knife and fork, then tried to find someplace to put His hands. For the first time that night, He looked up.

“Aunt Delilah,” He said slowly. “I have a confession to make. The reason I didn’t tell you the name of my supplier was that I knew he was selling me hot prints. I was trying to win his trust, and find out how he was getting them. Then the counterfeits showed up at Josh’s place, but they weren’t all the same ones, except for some of the Niedemans, so I didn’t think Josh’s death was connected.”
“Only now something has gone wrong,” said Mrs. Sperling.

“Big time. I called him this afternoon, and they told me he’s dead. They said burglars got him.”

“Who are ‘they’?”

“His landlady and she said that’s what the police said.”

Mrs. Sperling nodded. “And your supplier’s name?”

“Kyle Hoffman.”

“Kyle Hoffman?” I yelped. “He’s that building manager.”

“Phillip, did you know Mr. Hoffman was the manager of the building where Mr. Stein’s gallery was?”

He squirmed. “Yeah, I knew. Why do you think I was suspicious? Besides my Niedemans, Hoffman sold me a couple Gormans, and a Dawna Barton. But Josh didn’t even carry them.”

“Edgar Hendricks does,” I said softly. “Only Hoffman’s alibied for Stein’s death.”

“That does lead to some interesting possibilities,” mused Mrs. Sperling. She faded into her thoughts.

The phone rang. I bounced up, but Glen came running in from the kitchen.

“Sorry, I’m late, Mrs. Sperling,” he gasped, sliding into his seat at the table. “Donna, it’s your brother on the phone.”

“Oh, shoot. He probably wants to know about his Niedeman.”

“You can assure him it’s real,” said Mrs. Sperling. “I had it verified. Now, Glen-”

“I’m sorry, but I met this totally bodacious babe. He’s, like, a total E-ticket.”

My E ticket smiled His fabulous smile and chuckled.

“Love comes before all. Right, Aunt Delilah?”

I didn’t hear what she said. I headed into the kitchen and the phone to do battle with the exact opposite of Phillip DuPre.

“When am I going to get my Niedeman back?” demanded Peter. “You said it’d be Tuesday at the latest, and it’s Wednesday.”

“I don’t know. My car’s broken down, and we’re real busy here.”

“And I’m supposed to hang while you get around to it?”

“Look, Mrs. Sperling went to a lot of trouble to get that print authenticated for you, and she’s not charging you anything, so you could at least be a little nicer.”

“Tell her I said thanks. When am I going to get it back?”

“Hang on.”

Grumbling, I turned toward the dining room.

“So, Phil, how did your auditions go today?” Glen’s voice floated into the kitchen.

I stopped.

“Pretty well,” Phillip DuPre said. “Saw a lot of good dancing. I made my point with Slick, finally. The creep begged me to do it because he ‘trusts’ me, then questioned everything. I told him either pipe down or I walk. But once he saw the dancers, he agreed with me.”

“Gonna be a tough choice?”

“Nope.”

“Come on. Who’re you casting?”

He laughed. “I’m not saying. Got a lot of hassles to get through, Slick’s gotta have his say, then the agents.”

I went in. “Um, Mrs. Sperling, I’ve got to figure out how to get my brother’s Niedeman to him. He’s having kittens.”

“Phillip, would you please drive Donna out this evening before you go to Emil’s?”

“I thought I was going,” I said, surprised.

“But…” He looked puzzled. “Aunt Delilah, you just asked me to go before dinner.”

“You’re both going,” said Mrs. Sperling. “There’s already been one incident. I don’t want another.”

“I told you I wouldn’t go alone,” I said. “I’ve got friends meeting me.”

“All the better,” said Mrs. Sperling. “There’s safety in numbers. Donna, where does your brother live?”

“In Pasadena.”

“Phillip, that wouldn’t put you out, would it?”

“Not at all,” He said quickly.

“I don’t want to impose,” I said.

“If you don’t want me to go to Emil’s, that’s okay,” He said.

“Donna, your brother is waiting,” said Mrs. Sperling. “Phillip will drive you out to Pasadena, then the two of you together will go to Emil’s, and meet your friends. End of the discussion.”

My heart was breaking. Only the ride out to Pasadena was pretty quiet. I tried to talk, but couldn’t think of anything to talk about except the auditions, which I didn’t want to talk about, and Stein’s death, which I didn’t want to talk about either. He seemed to be feeling pretty guilty about Hoffman’s death, so I decided not to bring that up. He wasn’t real talkative.

Peter had plenty to say. Fortunately, Elise wouldn’t let him say it.

“Who’s the babe?” she asked me as soon as Peter had Phillip DuPre fully engaged discussing Niedemans.

“A friend of my boss’s family,” I said, blushing.

He had just introduced Himself as Phil, so I didn’t think He wanted me advertising what He did for a living. Peter had given Him the once over and focused on the single diamond earring He wore and the leather bomber jacket. I called it style. Peter probably had other things on his mind, but Elise kept his trap shut for a change.

“Does she have any other friends like him?” asked Elise.

“You’re taken.”

“You’re not. Anything going on?”

“I wish. He won’t even talk to me. It’s not like he’s a jerk. He’s really nice, but I can’t seem to find anything to say to him.”

The guys came back at that point.

“Donna,” complained Peter. “You didn’t tell us your boss is a private eye. Mom is gonna have fits when she finds out.”

I glared at him. “She’ll have fits when she finds out you and Elise are living together already.”

“You bitch.”

“You wouldn’t,” gasped Elise.

“Peter will just have to see that I don’t have to. We’ve gotta get going.”

“Nice meeting you,” He said.

“Nice meeting you, Phil,” said Peter.

The ride back to Westwood was equally quiet. I wanted to yell at Him for telling Peter what Mrs. Sperling did with her time. I looked at Phillip DuPre and melted. Hell, how was He to know?

 

mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Nine

Back at the house, I hung up the phone and gazed at Mrs. Sperling thoughtfully. She worked quietly on a crewel sampler. We’d just finished dinner, and were relaxing in the living room.

“That was Shelley Carson just now,” I told Mrs. Sperling. “She says she’ll take me on, and is sending me out tomorrow on an audition.”

“How nice,” Mrs. Sperling said innocently.

“Funny. It just happens to be for a video directed by Phillip DuPre.”

“Are you implying something?”

“I don’t know.” I sunk into the sofa. “I feel like I’m being set up.”

Mrs. Sperling chuckled. “Assuming you are, it’s not the sort of set up I’d complain about if I were you.”

“I suppose. It doesn’t seem fair to the other dancers, though. And I can’t help wondering if there isn’t supposed to be some sort of payback if you know what I mean.”

“Your career is in no position for you to be worrying about being fair to other dancers, my dear. Furthermore, Phillip is perfectly capable of keeping his personal and professional biases separate. As for the payback, don’t even think of it. Phillip was well raised in a good home, and it shows.”

“Hmm.” I thought for a few minutes. “You wouldn’t happen to know if, uh, Mr. DuPre has a girlfriend?”

Mrs. Sperling laughed. “Donna, I’m afraid you’re on your own as far as that’s concerned. I refuse to meddle.” She paused. “But Phillip is not seeing anyone at the moment.”

“Well, it’s not going to make any difference. Like I’m really going to say anything.”

“It might not be a bad idea.” She absorbed herself in her stitchery.

“Yeah. Right.” I got up and stretched. “I’m just a peon dancer hyphen chauffeur. He sure is gorgeous, though.”

And nice, with no ego. It was hopeless. So I went to bed.

The next morning, I made a quick run past the Beverly Hills police station before class. I worked out extra hard, so I was dragging a little when I made it back to the house. Mrs. Sperling had me join her for brunch, poached eggs with Benedictine sauce, fresh steamed broccoli and fresh fruit with cream.

“You sound worn out.” Mrs. Sperling smiled softly at me.

“I am a little. I got your notes in, before class even. That Willoughby guy said he’d bring them to Michaelson.”

“Thank you. Speaking of that, I don’t believe you ever told me the results of your adventure Monday night.”

“Oh, that.” I recounted my conversation with the bartender at Hennessey’s. “I also forgot to tell you I dropped by the police station the next morning. They were waiting for me. It turns out Fred Gonzagos did a small stretch for forgery with intent to fraud six years back. He got out three years ago and has supposedly stayed clean since. More like he hasn’t gotten caught. They listed an Anita Llanez as his sister. I wrote the address down somewhere.” I dug through my dance bag. “Here it is. It’s in Montebello.”

“Quite a distance. I’ll try to contact her by phone. While I do, why don’t you rest a little? I assume you want to be fresh for your audition this afternoon.”

“Yeah.” I sighed and sat back in my chair.

“Feeling nervous?” Her smile was a little sly.

“It’s an audition. Of course, I’m nervous. I don’t know. It just feels strange, is all. But like you say, I’m in no position to complain.”

She nodded.

“Mrs. Sperling, can I ask you a question?”

“Of course.”

“Why are you helping me develop a career that is going to cause me to leave you?”

She hesitated. “Because of how hard I fought to realize my dream of becoming a detective. I fought tooth and nail to get the state to let me test for my investigator’s license. Almost took them to court. And it was years before anyone gave me any credit for my skills. It was so painful to know how good I was, and yet not be taken seriously because I was supposedly handicapped. For similar reasons, it’s much the same for most young artists. You know you’re a good dancer and actress, but no one recognizes it, and no one will take you seriously until you make tremendous amounts of money. Even then some people won’t. Poor Jimmy felt so bad because his family considered his writing a nice hobby until his first book hit the Bestseller list. It’s a wonderful book, and it had gotten twenty-eight rejection slips before I talked to a friend of my father’s who’s a literary agent. My detecting was a nice hobby, also, and nobody would believe that I could be any good at it. Finally, my father convinced a friend of his that I might be able to tell whether or not a burglary the police considered just a standard break-in was indeed more than it seemed. It was a murder attempt based on an old grudge that I was able to ferret out. I saved that friend’s life. He thanked me, and told me he would tell his friends about me on one condition.”

“What was that?”

“That I promise that if I ever came across another struggling dreamer, I would help him or her achieve that dream. You see, someone had done the same for him, and made him make the same promise. It was such a noble goal, he thought it best to carry it on. And I have.”

“I think I will, too. If I get anywhere. There aren’t enough nice people in the world.”

“Maybe we can change that.”

We were on the road by noon. Our first stop was the security company. The guard we wanted was still out sick. The supervisor did let us see his report. We saw for ourselves that nothing suspicious was seen. Then we stopped at a second gallery near Mr. Stein’s.

A tall, light-haired young man loudly held court at a desk in the middle of the store. He had a phone to one ear and talked to a pair of well-dressed matrons and another trendily dressed man.

“Hal, get a good look at that sculpture and tell me it isn’t the hottest thing in years,” the young man directed. The other man gazed moodily at an abstract plastic contortion of some kind. “Ladies, I’m telling you, the blue frames on those prints. Joe, you’re back. Get your tickets and get out here. That show is going to be the biggest thing this season… You are really gonna regret it, I promise you. Ladies, would I lie to you? The blue frames. Hal, that is the sculpture you want. I’m telling you. Don’t buy it and you’ll live to regret it.”

“I think I’d live to regret owning it,” I whispered to Mrs. Sperling. “It’s plastic and it looks like it’s in pain.”

“That’s probably the point. Are there any other sculptures here?”

“Yeah.” I took her elbow and guided her to a small bronze on a free-standing white carpeted box.

“Lady, lady, don’t handle the merchandise!” yelped the young man. “Joe, there won’t be any selection by the time the show gets out to you. Those pieces are going like hotcakes.”

“I’m sorry, sir. I should have asked,” Mrs. Sperling answered. “Would it be possible? I have no other way of observing it.”

“Oh.” He spotted Eleanor. “I s’pose. Be careful. Maybe the puce, ladies, but I’m telling you, the blue’s better. Joe, you’re nuts. Come on, for me? Are you gonna buy it, Hal, or not?”

In answer, Hal waved and left. The young man cursed him softly.

“The plastic?” Mrs. Sperling asked me. “And what does he look like?”

I took her over. “Tall, with dishwater blonde hair. The plastic is red, the same color and subtlety as a fire engine on a three-alarm fire.”

“Ooph! It wouldn’t go in my home at all.”

The two ladies abandoned the gallery and the young man found himself hanging up.

“Well, ladies, how are you today?”

“Quite well, thank you,” Mrs. Sperling answered. “You are..?”

“Edgar Hendricks.”

“Mr. Hendricks, I would like to speak with the owner of the gallery.”

“It’s your lucky day, ma’am, I am he. Let me tell you about this sculpture.”

“I’m afraid it would be grossly out of place in my home.”

“Personally, I can’t stand it, either.”

Mrs. Sperling’s eyebrow lifted. “The hottest thing in years?”

Eleanor sniffed at the base. If she’d been a male, I would have worried.

“For the right people, like Hal. He’s into trendy. You, ma’am, are much more interested in something of more lasting value.”

“Actually, I’m interested in Mr. Stein’s gallery.”

“That’s closed. He, uh, passed away. He didn’t carry much sculpture anyway. I’ve got a piece over here that I’m telling you, you want.”

I guided Mrs. Sperling to Hendricks’ pride. She graciously put her hands on it.

“I’d heard rumors Mr. Stein had been selling counterfeit art,” she said, feeling a polished wood carving that resembled a twisted blob.

“Everyone’s heard that one,” said Hendricks. “Can’t prove it, of course.”

“I wonder who started it.”

“I don’t give a damn. Stein’s out of my way, and so much the better. He was what you call supercilious. Biggest snob in town. Too good to go to anybody’s parties.”

“I take it, your business did much better than his.”

“Well, yeah! Hell, yes!”

“I can imagine.” Mrs. Sperling did not believe him for a second. “What were you doing a week ago tonight?”

“Me? Let’s see. I locked up, and I… What did I do? Oh yeah. I went to Emil’s for a bite to eat and hung around the bar there all evening. Picked up on a chick and brought her home.”

While Mrs. Sperling and Hendricks were conversing, I wandered around. I noticed that his very large computer monitor was on and a spreadsheet was splayed across it. Keeping one eye on Hendricks, I read his store’s financial history for the past six months. Then I wandered away. Mrs. Sperling convinced Hendricks that she really didn’t want the wood blob and we left.

“I get the feeling you don’t believe Hendricks was doing better than the late Mr. Stein,” I said, pulling the De Ville into traffic.

“Not for one minute.”

“What would you say if I could prove it?” I grinned.

“Donna, you didn’t do anything illegal?”

“I don’t think so. Borderline at worst. The spreadsheet was on his desktop and not minimized or anything. I just looked. They won’t be able to trace it to me anyway because I just looked.”

“What did you find?”

“Hendricks has been operating in the red since July, and he wasn’t doing too well then.”

“Which means unless Mr. Stein was doing worse, a very unlikely situation, Mr. Hendricks has every reason to be pleased by Mr. Stein’s death.”

“Which he as good as said he was.” I checked the rearview mirror and changed lanes. “Looks like we’ve got another suspect.”

“Even more interesting, he fits the description of Dolores’ friend who sold her the Niedemans, and Mr. Hendricks would have access to wholesale prints.”

“But why dump them on Dolores when he could sell them at his store at a much higher markup?”

“What if he got them by dishonest means?”

“That makes sense. Where to now?”

“Let’s investigate the building where Mr. Stein’s gallery is.” Mrs. Sperling got that vague look on her face. “There’s something going on there, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.”

I went ahead and parked in Mr. Stein’s space behind the gallery, mostly because I knew he wouldn’t be using it. We went around front to the foyer, though. According to the directory next to the elevator, there were four offices in the building, but only one of them was occupied. We took the elevator up to the third floor, confirmed that those two offices were empty, then walked down to the second floor.

The second office there was empty. But the one closest to the front of the building still had an occupant for the moment, at any rate. “Best Rentals,” proclaimed the sign on the glass door, with the website address underneath. There was a man on the other side snarling as he glared at his computer.

He was fairly hefty and wearing a heavy wool sweater and gloves with the fingers cut off. It seemed a little extreme except that the building was still pretty chilly. He looked up and glared at us as we walked into the office.

“Can I help you?” he asked more out of duty than interest as we walked in.

“I’m hoping you can help us,” Mrs. Sperling said with a smile. “We’re investigating the death of Mr. Josh Stein.”

The man shook his head. “Never heard of him.”

“He was your downstairs neighbor,” Mrs. Sperling said.

“You mean the gallery?” The man shrugged. “Huh. Didn’t pay much attention to it. But if he was murdered, you might look at the building’s owners.”

“Why?”

“Simple. They’re trying to squeeze us out of here so they can jack up the rental rates.” The man held up his sweater. “See this?”

“I’m afraid not.” Mrs. Sperling smiled.

The man’s eyebrows raised as he realized his mistake. “Shit. I’m sorry. I didn’t notice. Anyway, I’m sitting here bundled up like a fucking Inuit because there’s no frickin’ heat in this building. And no AC, either, in the summer. New owners came in last year and it has been fucking miserable since. They have to be forcing us out. We lost three tenants in the past six months. I’m only here because my lease isn’t up until next month.”

“That sounds most unpleasant.”

“I wouldn’t put it past them to kill that gallery guy. They’ll sink to no end to get more money out of us.”

Mrs. Sperling smiled sympathetically. “It does sound like it. Well, pray excuse us for interrupting your day.”

We left quickly, although we took our time getting down that spiral staircase.

“So, do we have a new suspect?” I asked as we headed to the car.

“I seriously doubt it,” Mrs. Sperling said. “The new owners may be trying to force the old tenants out. It does happen. But I find it hard to believe they would think it in their best interests to murder one.”

“That makes sense.” I sighed. “Where next?”

“Mr. Stein’s gymnasium.”

Thanks to the magic of GPS, I found it easily enough. It was one of those really posh clubs with carpet that you sink to your ankles in, and good-looking desk clerks in tailored blouses and skirts who take your I.D. and exchange it for their own keys to their lockers. Mrs. Sperling asked for the club manager, a Bernice Lockwell. She was busy at that moment. We were invited to sit in the lobby, next to the pro shop, an open area filled with racks of leotards, skimpy tops, and skimpier bottoms.

I happen to have a body that does well in very high French cut bottoms, as long as I have a belt. I’m too long for a single leotard without something breaking it up. While we waited, I looked through the clothes, hoping to find a gorgeous and sexy ensemble for my audition. It was for jazz dancers, and Carson had said wear high-heeled dance shoes. I might still have worn my traditional black ballet leotard and sheer skirt, except He was going to be there. I wanted to look a little sexy. I mean, if He was going to be hanging around Mrs. Sperling, anyway… You never know.

Miss Lockwell showed up just then and brought me down to earth.

“I understand Mr. Joshua Stein was a member here,” Mrs. Sperling said after introducing herself and me.

“Yes. We much regret his passing,” replied Miss Lockwell, a thin, bland corporate type with light blonde hair.

“Did he keep a permanent locker here?”

“As a matter of fact, he did. I wish I could show it to you, but that’s not allowed. And it’s already been cleared out.”

“By who? And when?”

“A youngish man, light-haired, and fairly tall. I don’t think he gave his name. He had a note from Mr. Stein’s widow giving him permission to clear the locker. He came by earlier this afternoon.”

“Do you have a copy of the note?”

Miss Lockwell blushed. “I’m sorry. I had intended to keep and file it, but during our conversation, the young man must have gotten it back and kept it himself. It’s the only explanation I can think of. I can’t find the note anywhere.”

“Somehow, it doesn’t surprise me.” Mrs. Sperling smiled with chagrin. “Thank you very much, Miss Lockwell. Let’s go, Donna.”

Mrs. Sperling remained preoccupied all the way out to the car.

“That guy that cleared out the locker,” I said as I started the engine. “He fits the description, too.”

“I noticed. The aggravating thing is I’ve been given to understand a lot of young men in Southern California are light-haired and tall.”

“There are a lot of them. Where to?”

“What time is it? One thirty?”

“One forty-five.”

“Melrose Avenue, and that designer’s store. Devonaire, I believe.”

The store was in a basic, boring white two-story building. The sign looked like it came straight from Times Square. It was a big black, rectangle, framed by chaser lights. The name, “Devonaire”, flashed on the top half, and a host of existentialist quotes crawled along the bottom half. The store, itself, was actually half-way normal.

It had a white interior, with light pine shelving, and the displays were spare and uncluttered as if Devon didn’t need a lot of stock to make money. He probably didn’t. The prices were incredible.

The clothes were nice, though. He had several knit jumpsuits with stirrup legs, in olives and golds. The dresses were similar colors, but straight sheaths with long sleeves and a variety of back openings and collars, made out of heavy linen.

As we walked in, a clerk folded sweaters with the most wonderful designs on them. The only reason I could tell she was a she was that she had two small bumps on her chest that were too flabby to be pectorals. She wore a clinging black bodysuit, which was the only reason I could see the bumps. Otherwise, her blonde hair had been clipped close to her head, except on top, where it stood up straight. She wore no make-up, and her jaw was unusually masculine. She was at least six feet tall and broad-shouldered. But her hands were small and feminine, and there were the bumps. And one missing between the legs.

“Is there a clerk?” Mrs. Sperling asked softly.

“Uh, yeah.”

“Excuse me, might we see the owner?” Mrs. Sperling said a bit louder.

The clerk looked at us and jerked her head towards the back. We went past her to the dressing rooms, which were stalls with canvas curtains for doors.

The young man was in complete contrast to the clerk. He was male. His hair was black and long, and he wore a black Nehru jacket over black 501 jeans. He couldn’t have been more than five five.

“I am Devon,” he announced with an extremely New York accent. “Welcome to my humble establishment.” He came over and shook our hands. “I’m so glad to see you ladies. And a doggie. I just love poochies.” Eleanor looked at him but accepted the head-scratching as her due. “I know. I know. You’re just browsing. Be my guest. Let’s get to know each other. Don’t worry. You’re in my hands. I will find just the right look for you. Gillian, find these beautiful ladies a glass of wine.”

“Thank you very much, Mr. Devon,” said Mrs. Sperling.

“Oh, please call me Devon. Everybody does.”

“Very well. I’d actually like to ask you a question or two.”

“Ask on, ask on. I’m an open book.”

Gillian, the clerk, pressed a glass of white wine into my hand. I sniffed at it. It wasn’t bad.

“Thank you,” said Mrs. Sperling. She didn’t drink hers. “Devon, I understand you knew Mr. Joshua Stein.”

“Oh, lord. For years. We’ve known each other since we were babes practically.”

“And how long would that be?”

“Let’s see, I came out here, what, four years ago. I had a fling with Jeff, then there was Thomas. Oh, yeah. I met Josh when I was dating Earl. Christmas two years ago.”

“I see. I was told you had a disagreement with Mr. Stein a week ago today.”

“Of course, we did.” Devon laughed. “Josh and I, we’re always tiffing. Last Wednesday was nothing.”

“There was a piece of pottery lost.”

“Oh, don’t tell me, you’re here about the insurance. I told Josh I’d pay for it. I called him up that night. Listen, don’t even worry about it. Or would you rather I paid the company? Honest, I’ll pay for it. It’s no big deal.”

“What were you arguing about?”

“Silly stuff. I get excited, you know? But Josh has a wonderful gallery. It’s over in Beverly Hills. Wait a minute, you’ve already been out there. Of course, you have, for the claim, right? Isn’t it marvelous? He’s got the most wonderful pieces. Did you see that beautiful abstract by Winston Seever? It’s incredible.”

Mrs. Sperling pressed her lips together. “I’m afraid I didn’t.”

“Oh, check it out the next time you’re in. It is simply wonderful.”

“Regarding Wednesday, where were you that evening?”

“Oh, nightclubbing. The usual. I’m all over the place. Where were you? Or does it make any difference? Do you nightclub? I know the most incredible hot spot.”

“Were you there Wednesday?”

“I told you, I’m everywhere.”

“What time did you say you called Mr. Stein.”

“I don’t believe I did!” Devon giggled. “Oh, hell, it was nine o’clock, ten o’clock, eleven o’clock, somewhere in there. Ask Josh. He could tell you. Or is he trying to say I didn’t call? He’d do that. Trust me, I did. Why would I say I did when I didn’t, because I am going to pay for that pottery. I mean I’d be stupid to say I told him I’d pay for it if I wasn’t going to. That man is such a stick in the mud. But has he got a great gallery.”

“Well, thank you very much, Devon.” Mrs. Sperling turned, then stopped. “I just thought, where was Mr. Stein when you called him?”

“Where else? His home. He closes the place at six, on the dot. Are you leaving already?”

“It’s been very pleasant, but we have other appointments.”

“I’ll bet you do. Well, come back soon. We’ll get you something nice to try on. Gillian, take these glasses.”

Devon escorted us out with a running monologue on how nice we were, how great Josh was, and how nice it would be to see us again. Mrs. Sperling let out a sigh of relief when we got back to the car.

“He’s a character,” I said.

“Home, Donna. I can’t take much more of this.”

I chuckled. “At least he didn’t assume you were handicapped.”

“It’s amazing what people don’t notice. And that’s the second time today.”

“Well, you don’t wear sunglasses, and you don’t carry a white cane. He must have figured you had Eleanor in a harness for a different purpose.”

Mrs. Sperling frowned. “He didn’t tell us anything, either.”

“That’s right. He didn’t. And he lied about Wednesday night. Or did he? The coroner’s report said Stein died between eight and ten, or something like that.”

“He also said that Mr. Stein was at home when he called. It’s possible Mr. Stein led Devon to believe he was at home when he wasn’t. But if Mr. Stein was at the house, then Ms. Bistler has some explaining to do.”

I gasped. “He kept talking as if Stein was alive.”

“I noticed. That is easily managed.”

“That’s still another suspect. How many possibles do we have?”

“Well, there’s Fred Gonzagos. He has no real motive visible, but possible because of a suspicious disappearance, compounded by suspicious remarks made the last time he was seen. Until we find him, nothing much can be learned there. Then there’s Ramona Bistler. She took a mysterious drive the night of her husband’s death that she lied about, and she has a substantial motive on several levels. And of course, Devon. No known motive beyond a vague argument, although I did get the impression he was less fond of Mr. Stein than he wanted us to believe.”
“But Devon is short and dark. Wait. Gillian isn’t. She’s tall and blonde, too.”

“But she’s female.”

“More gender neutral,” I said. “Get her out of a bodysuit, and you couldn’t tell by looking at her unless you looked real closely at her hands, and even then, it’s a push.”

“Hm. There is that to consider. We also have Edgar Hendricks. He, too, fits the description of a mysterious young man known to be selling potentially stolen prints possibly belonging to Mr. Stein, and known to have removed possible evidence. We should confirm that note. The only problem is we can’t trust the veracity of the only person who can confirm it. We should also confirm Mr. Hendricks’ whereabouts the night of the murder before it gets too much later and memories get dimmer. I’m afraid, Donna, I’m going to have to send you bar hopping again tonight.”

“Oo. Emil’s is expensive.”

Mrs. Sperling chuckled. “Get Phillip to take you.”

“What?” My jaw dropped. “Are you kidding? I can barely get out a complete sentence when he’s around. He’s not going to want to go out with a peon like me, anyway.”

“Don’t sell yourself short.”

“Oh, come on, Mrs. Sperling. A nobody dancer and he can go out with major players? In my dreams.”

“I could ask him for you, if you like.”

“Don’t you dare!”

“If you insist, I won’t. But please see that you are accompanied.”

“I will.”

 

Chapter Eight

“Just because I was divorcing the man doesn’t mean I wanted the asshole dead,” Ramona Bistler swore vehemently.

She was scared. About average height, she had dark hair that had been streaked, high cheekbones and a wraith-like figure dressed in a faded designer denim mini and a fuchsia silk blouse. Her tights were fuchsia also, and she wore multi-colored ankle-high leather boots. She paced about her Laura Ashley living room, puffing on a cigarette.

“Why would I jump to that conclusion?” asked Mrs. Sperling.

“You’re here, aren’t you?” She waved the hand holding her smoke, sprinkling ash in a wide arc. “Come on, Delilah. You wouldn’t want to talk to me unless I was a suspect.”

“I would guess, Ms. Bistler, that your friends have been frightening you needlessly. Your closeness to the victim makes you a good source of information. That is why I am here. I’m certainly not about to classify anybody as a suspect with as many questions unanswered as there currently are. Just so I can eliminate you, what were you doing the night your husband died?”

“Nothing. I… Well, I was alone all night. I took a short drive because I felt like it, then came here and watched T.V. until I went to bed.” She sighed. “It doesn’t look good, does it? And no, there wasn’t anybody who could have seen me.”

“Are you sure? Did you make any stops? Even a mundane stop at the grocery for cigarettes or even for gas for your car.”

“None. My maid stocks plenty of cigarettes for me, and Steve, my chauffeur, sees to keeping plenty of gas in the tank. I suppose I should say, my former chauffeur. I fired him yesterday.” She stubbed out her cigarette in the overflowing ashtray next to her sofa.

“Why?”

“Insubordination, for starters, and the bastard was stealing from me. I needed him to get through the funeral, but after that, I fired him.”

“Did he know you were about to?”

“I hadn’t mentioned it to anyone. He seemed pretty shocked when I told him. And pissed off.”

“Indeed. Do you have his home address, and may I have it?”

“I think my lawyer has all that. He takes care of all my financial matters. He’s Eugene Montoinne, over on Sunset. Nine thousand something or other. You know, those big towers where all the agents’ offices are?”

I knew the buildings she meant, rather better than I wished to admit.

Mrs. Sperling nodded. “If you would be so kind as to call him and let him know we’ll be coming, it would be appreciated.”

Bistler walked over to the other end table and picked up the handset to one of those real fancy old-fashioned phones. Not the upright kind with the part you speak into on the base and the earpiece is separate, but the other kind. Anyway, she got through right away and told the person on the other end to answer any questions Mrs. Sperling might have.

“That’s settled,” she said, hanging up. “Any other questions?”

“Yes. Did your husband belong to a gymnasium or health club of some sort?”

“Of course. The same one I belong to. It’s on Santa Monica.”

“Near the Rodeo district, or closer in to downtown?”

“Close to Rodeo.”

“That fits in perfectly. This may seem a rather personal question, but what did your husband wear to bed?”

“To bed? With me?” Bistler fidgeted with her cigarette. “Um. Nothing. If you want the complete truth, Josh was a bore, from the first day to the last. He was a nice person. But he was the worst stick in the mud I’ve ever known. All he cared about was that damn gallery. The only parties he went to were connected to the gallery, and he didn’t go to many of those. The more established he got, the fewer parties he went to.”

“But what did he wear when he wasn’t with you?”

Bistler hesitated. “I… Shit, I don’t know. We weren’t exactly a close couple. He kept to himself mostly, and I didn’t butt in. I’m a night person, anyway, and he’s the morning type. For two people who lived in the same house, we didn’t see much of each other.”

“Why did you marry him?”

Bistler laughed. “Why else? For his money.”

“Was he aware of that?”

“Beats me. I couldn’t have cared less if he did. I only wanted to stay married long enough to get a good settlement. It was all part of my game plan. First, I had to get a guy like Josh, who could be counted on to ignore me. Then I had to get him to marry me, wait a few years until I had a good case, then sue him for divorce and get as much money as I could. In the meantime, I stashed away some more cash in a Swiss account, so if I couldn’t get a decent alimony, my butt would still be covered and comfortable.” She stopped and examined Mrs. Sperling. “It was heartless, I know. But I couldn’t afford feelings. I grew up dirt poor. That’s why I came to L.A. I was gonna be rich or die trying. I really wanted to be in the movies. Was that ever a joke. Nailing a rich husband was a lot easier. As soon as I had a few million in the bank, I told Josh goodbye. Kicked him out two weeks ago today. And this is his house. I’d do it again in a minute.”

“You were certainly motivated,” replied Mrs. Sperling without a hint of judgment.

“Not enough to kill him. There are things even I won’t do.”

“Of course. Is it safe to assume you didn’t share a bedroom?”

“We didn’t. Actually, Josh played right into my hands on that one. About six months after we were married, Josh asked me to take my own room because I was so prone to staying up late, and he didn’t like being wakened up when I finally went to bed.”

“May I see the room?”

“Sure. I was going to have the maid clean it out this afternoon. The police haven’t released the stuff from the gallery yet.”

The room was kind of dark, and very neat, perfectly fitting what we knew of Mr. Stein’s personality. After I described it, Mrs. Sperling had me go through the closet and chest of drawers.

“It’s the same sort of stuff that was in the police report,” I said. “Not as much. Looks like he took the bulk of his stuff when he left. There’s only a couple pairs of pants, three shirts, some sweaters.” I opened the chest. “I don’t see any undershorts. Hey, look at this. Two pairs of pajamas. They look really fancy.” I handed a pair to Mrs. Sperling.

“Silk,” she observed. “Are there any other pairs?”

I hurried through the drawers. “Nope. Not much else here, either. He took all his shoes and belts. About the only thing he left was eight suits.”

“That’s interesting,” Mrs. Sperling nodded. “It would appear Mr. Stein did not like dressing up.”

Bistler had nothing to say because she had shown us the room and left.

I checked under the bed just to be thorough. “Nothing under the bed. Do you want to take the room apart?”

“No. I don’t think we’re going to find anything revealing here.”

I ran my hand between the mattress and box springs.

“You’re probably right. I don’t see any signs of counterfeiting.”

“That would take a great deal more space than is in this room. We’ll go finish speaking with Ms. Bistler.”

We returned to the living room where Bistler smoked and paced.

“Ms. Bistler, did your husband have a studio in the house?”

She snorted. “Josh was no artist. Couldn’t even draw stick figures.”

“That’s odd. I believe there were rumors going around that he was counterfeiting artworks.”

“Could be.” Bistler shrugged. “If he was, someone else was doing the work. I heard the rumors, too. It doesn’t sound like Josh, him being such a bore and all. But I wouldn’t be surprised.”

“Did he ever give you any indication he was?”

“Josh gave me no indication of anything he was doing. I didn’t really care, either. As long as the money came in, I didn’t give a damn what he did.”

“Have you seen the terms of his will?”

“Yes.” Bistler paced even more frenetically. “Would you believe he left everything to me? Does not sound good, does it?”

“It’s not an unusual way to dispose of one’s money. Do you know of anyone who might have had something against your husband?”

“Oh, come on! I didn’t even know his friends. How am I supposed to know his enemies?”

“Maybe you’ve heard rumors.”

She shrugged and lit another cigarette. “Maybe one of his competitors. That gallery did a good business.”

“That is an angle I didn’t think of.”

“The cops sure did.”

“Have the police spoken to you since you identified your husband’s body?”

“Yesterday. What’s his name, Michaelson? He came over asking where I was that night and about enemies. I told him what I told you.”

“Excellent. Well, I’d better not trouble you anymore, Ms. Bistler. Thank you very much for your information.”

We left, much to Bistler’s relief. Our first stop was her lawyer’s office. The receptionist sent us back almost immediately. Mr. Montoinne was a fairly short man, balding, and dressed in the required dark pin-stripe three-piece suit. He looked to be as honest and humble a family retainer as one could want.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Sperling,” he said with sincere warmth. But something about him didn’t feel right to me. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you. Your reputation is outstanding.”

“Thank you, Mr. Montoinne.” Mrs. Sperling graciously took the seat she was offered. Eleanor curled up at her feet. I was left ignored and standing by the door. “What I came for was an address that your client, Ms. Ramona Bistler, said you had.”

“The chauffeur’s. Yes. My secretary is digging it out now.”

“Then while we’re waiting, would you mind answering a few questions?”

“My pleasure.” He scurried around his huge oak desk and sat down.

“How long have you been retained by Ms. Bistler?”

“For about two and a half years. Her late husband recommended me when she wanted someone to deal with some investments for her.”

“Why not a regular stockbroker?”

“Part of it was the legal awkwardness of maintaining separate ownership. California’s divorce laws are such that anything acquired during the term of the marriage is considered community property unless there is a special contract drawn up. Mr. Stein had made some gifts of cash to his wife, and she wanted to invest them, and at the same time maintain sole ownership of the funds and whatever profit from them against the possibility of a divorce. She was also afraid Mr. Stein’s attorney would be biased in his favor, so at her husband’s suggestion, she retained me. Through power of attorney, I eventually became responsible for managing her household affairs, including retaining an accountant, hiring her staff and seeing to it they were paid, overseeing her stockbroker, details like that.”

“So you are well informed as to her financial status.”

“Intimately so.”

Mrs. Sperling’s eyebrow lifted. “Interesting choice of words.”

“You are referring to Ms. Bistler’s reputation?” Mr. Montoinne leered slightly. “With her promiscuous tendencies, it’s not at all surprising. And I can see you asking yourself if I have… Well, gone beyond the usual bounds of attorney-client relations.”

“I blush to confess the thought did cross my mind.”

“You’re blushing in this town? Mrs. Sperling, I am a man, and Ramona Bistler does have a way about her.”

“I get the point. We needn’t be salacious.”

“Your good breeding shows. I don’t run into much of that anymore. It’s a pleasant change.”

“Thank you. To return to my original line of questioning, being so knowledgeable about Ms. Bistler’s assets, perhaps you could confirm the existence of a Swiss bank account in her name, and give me a rough estimate of the amount therein.”

“She has one in Zurich. If she continues investing at her current rate, she should be able to better her standard of living on the interest alone.”

“That’s a great deal of money. Is she aware of that?”

“I would say not. I have yet to tell her the exact figures, beyond mentioning that she needn’t be concerned about her settlement. Fortunately, I do not need to inform the court about the Swiss bank account, since those assets cannot be recognized. Or I wouldn’t have had to. But some caution had to be exercised regarding her investments, on the odd chance the judge developed sympathy for Mr. Stein, and imposed an alimony payment on her. For that reason I purposely kept her in the dark regarding her assets, thus making it harder for her to perjure herself on the witness stand.”

“You thought she might?”

“I didn’t want to give her the opportunity. And being aware of her tendencies, I also strongly recommended she refrain from adulterous liaisons, or at least be extremely discreet about them so as not to give her husband a case against her, which in turn could result in a minimal settlement or in her paying alimony. It’s all a moot point now. Her husband left her everything.”

“What are the odds of his family fighting the will?”

“Fair to middling, I would guess. They’ve got plenty themselves, or so I hear. But that doesn’t mean they’re generous. A lot depends on how they feel about my client. That’s the reason I have strongly recommended that she avoid overt romantic liaisons with men for the time being.”

“Have you heard anything regarding her husband’s gallery?”

“I never paid any attention to it, to be honest, beyond sending my son there for his Niedeman serigraphs.”

“He has an HN6?”

“I have no idea.”

“If he does, I would suggest having it authenticated. There’s a possibility someone switched counterfeits for Mr. Stein’s genuine ones. And could you please call me with the results?” Mrs. Sperling reached into her purse and removed a small leather case. “Here is one of my cards.” She stood as she handed it to him. “I appreciate the way you took time out of your busy schedule to speak with me.”

“It was my pleasure, Mrs. Sperling.” Mr. Montoinne was up and around his desk in a second. “If there is anything I can do for you in the future, please do not hesitate to call.”

“I won’t, Mr. Montoinne.”

I opened the door and we left, stopping only to get Steve Lansky’s address from the secretary.

“Where next?” I asked as Eleanor jumped into the back seat of the Rabbit. “Mr. Lansky’s?”

“Not yet.” Mrs. Sperling tied a scarf around her hair. “I’d like to speak with Sergeant Michaelson before he goes home today.” She got into the passenger seat next to me. “I don’t believe we’re far from there anyway.”

“It’s what? Four o’clock?” I snapped on my seatbelt. “We should be able to get there pretty quick.”

“And where is Mr. Lansky’s address?”

“Studio City.”

“Good heavens. We’ll end up on the freeway during rush hour. We’ll just see Sergeant Michaelson.”

“Fine.” The VW caught immediately, and I backed out of the parking space. Mr. Montoinne’s secretary had validated our parking ticket and we got out of there without any money left behind.

In spite of a quick ride over there, Sergeant Michaelson was getting ready to go when we arrived.

“I knew it,” he grinned ruefully. “I knew I’d never make it out of here early.”

“Is it urgent, Sergeant?” asked Mrs. Sperling. “I can always return tomorrow morning.”

“Nah. I take it you want the latest on the Stein murder.”

“It would help.”

“Okay. What do you know about a Steven Lansky?”

“Ms. Ramona Bistler’s chauffeur, or former chauffeur. He told Donna that Ms. Bistler spent the night of Mr. Stein’s death joyriding, and later filled the tank of her car to cover up her trip.”

“Before or after he was fired?”

“Before.”

“That lends even more credence to his story, which was basically the same, except with an even stronger implication that Ms. Bistler was involved in her husband’s death. I, however, spoke to him after he was fired, trying to confirm Ms. Bistler’s story that she was home alone after a brief drive.”

Mrs. Sperling nodded. “She seems to be keeping her story straight fairly well.”

“Ah-hah. You think she’s lying.”

“So do you.”

Sergeant Michaelson laughed. “I got one on you, Mrs. Sperling. I know she is. After hearing Lansky’s story, I spent a good day and a half checking out gas stations in the near vicinity of Ramona Bistler’s home. It was a long shot.”

“All the more satisfying when it pays off.” Mrs. Sperling smiled, as anxious as a kid on Christmas Eve. “What did you find?”

“That Ms. Ramona Bistler did indeed fill her tank with gasoline around eleven-thirty on the night her husband died. She paid for it with a charge card, so there’s a written record of it. And the station attendant particularly remembers her because her engine died just as she pulled in, and they had to push the car to the pump. Her tank was completely empty.”

“Very supportive of our current theory, but for one thing.”

“What?” Michaelson groaned.

“I’m not sure about the theory.”

“Keep plugging, then. And don’t worry about Bistler. It’s pretty suspicious, but not enough to arrest her on. We need a lot more evidence.”

“Too true. Still, it was a fortunate discovery, Sergeant.”

Michaelson chuckled. “That’s not all we discovered. It didn’t get in the initial report because the lab boys didn’t get to it until Friday, but they found something a little odd in the gallery, itself.”

“They did?” Mrs. Sperling’s eyebrow lifted.

“Yeah. There were about five prints stacked in a corner with a note that said they weren’t for sale.” Michaelson flipped through his notepad. “A Yamagata, two Sumners, and two Niedemans. We got them authenticated.”

“And..?”

“All of them were fakes.”

Mrs. Sperling nodded. “So Mr. Stein knew about the counterfeiting. Well, thank you for sharing all that with me. I’ll organize my notes this evening and send them over first thing tomorrow morning.”

“Thanks a lot, Mrs. Sperling. I’d better get going. My wife thinks I’m on the way.”

“Give her my regards, and tell her I’d like to have you and the family to dinner soon.”

“I’m sure she’ll look forward to it. See you around.”

We left the office, but not the building. Mrs. Sperling’s contacts with the police are pretty good. We spent an hour and a half on the firing range. The idea, of course, was not to use the gun at all. Mrs. Sperling makes a point of confronting her criminals in such a way that they can’t use violence. But criminals being criminals, they don’t always make that an option.

 

mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Seven

I got my gratified smile Sunday evening. Mrs. Sperling didn’t say whether or not my information meant anything. I got the feeling it fit in with some hypothesis she had, and she was holding her cards close to her chest, so to speak.

The next morning, I got back from dance class and cleaned up just barely in time to drive Mrs. Sperling to the Braille Institute, on Vermont. I thumbed through my Backstage West while she tutored Delsie Simmons, a young black girl recently blinded in a gang altercation. One of the aides told me that Mrs. Sperling always got the tough ones because she was the only one who could handle them.

Delsie was not only prone to skipping her homework, she was also very belligerent, and had yet to accept her handicap. I got a little nervous when I heard yelling coming from the room. It soon stopped and eventually, Mrs. Sperling came out unscathed and unruffled. She waited until Delsie had left the building before giving me our next destination.

It was a luxury condo nestled in one of those high rises along Wilshire, just past the crossing with Santa Monica Boulevard. I don’t know if that’s Beverly Hills proper, or West Los Angeles, but it’s still rich kid country, and not far from U.C.L.A. Being help, I got to park the car myself after Mrs. Sperling had been helped out of the car by the building’s doorman. She was waiting in the lobby for me when I got back.

“What took so long?” she asked.

“They don’t have visitor parking here,” I grumbled. “Parking in this city is insane. It’s a good thing we didn’t bring the limo.”

Mrs. Sperling nodded. “I understand it’s worse in New York.”

“That’s what I hear. Know where the elevator is?”

“Actually, no. Why don’t I just take your elbow?”

I looked around, searching for the conveyance, then took off at a brisk pace. Mrs. Sperling matched it, with Eleanor matching us both.

“He said it was three doors down to the right,” Mrs. Sperling said as we got off on the twelfth floor.

She and Eleanor took the lead from there. The door opened seconds after Mrs. Sperling rang and he ushered us in. I saw the condo first. It was mostly a huge living room furnished in black, white and royal blue minimalist with a long window taking up most of one wall and which overlooked Wilshire Boulevard and the condominiums across the street. The view made me woozy. I looked away. In the center of the room, a spiral staircase led to a loft. Under the loft was a tiny kitchen which matched the living room, and a black and glass dining room.

Then I saw Him. Tall and slender, with a chest that was just broad enough, lightly tanned skin, a fabulous face and beautiful, laughing green eyes. His sunbleached hair was dark rooted and clipped and arranged with stylish abandon. I’d seen His dark bomber jacket, yellow print shirt and baggy pants on mannequins on Rodeo Drive. Not that exact ensemble, but things like it.

It was Phillip DuPre, live and incredibly handsome, right in front of me. I was in shock. I mean, I figured Mrs. Sperling might have a few industry contacts, having been married to a cinematographer and all. But Hollywood’s latest golden boy director? A guy who had directed two mega-hit feature films, among other things, and now had every big name in music screaming at Him to do their videos? This was the son of some old family friends?

I had first seen Him at a cattle call for His second rock video. The first was from His movie “Five Alarm”, and that was the one that got the music industry so excited. He was behind the table with the casting director and producer, although He was obviously in charge. I remember joking with Tina that I would have loved a chance to fall in love with Him.

At the time, of course, it was ridiculous. I was just one of a thousand dancers who were auditioning for a role. He’d smiled at me. He’d smiled at all of us. I got called back, and He smiled at me again. I didn’t get the role. I don’t know if it was intense jealousy that she was working with that gorgeous man and I wasn’t, but I did not like the girl they chose.

“Phillip, I’d like you to meet my new chauffeur, Donna Brechter,” Mrs. Sperling was saying.

It dawned on me I’d been so busy ogling I hadn’t heard or seen any of the traditional greetings.

“Hi,” He said, pleasantly. He held out His hand.

“Hi,” I said.

Really winning dialogue, I know, but my heart was pounding so hard I couldn’t think straight. The man was just that gorgeous. I remembered to shake His hand, only He’d already started withdrawing it. I grabbed, He fumbled. It went back and forth for an hour, it seemed like. Mrs. Sperling says I didn’t, but I turned three shades of purple.

He laughed, quiet and really cute, then looked at me again.

“You’ve auditioned for me, haven’t you?” He asked.

“You remember?” I was in seventh heaven.

He actually blushed. “Well, not quite. It’s something more along Aunt Delilah’s line. Uh, deductive reasoning. I’m pretty good at faces, and if I can’t attach a place to one, I probably saw it at an audition. You look vaguely familiar, but nothing else, ergo…”

“Yeah. It was for the ‘White Heat’ video. I got called back.”

“Right. I remember now.” He smiled even more warmly if that were possible. “You were good.”

“Thanks.”

“Phillip, I believe you have some sculpture to show me?” broke in Mrs. Sperling.

“Yeah. It’s right this way. Would you like me to take you around the room first?”

“Thank you, Phillip. That would be quite nice.”

He took her elbow and guided her around the room, letting her place the furniture, warning her about a wobbly stand here, or a sharp corner there. His Niedemans hung all over, the only other colors in the room besides the main decor. They were all in thick black lacquered frames. He had several bronze sculptures and some clay ones, and one beautiful white porcelain figure of a woman. It was to these pieces that He drew Mrs. Sperling’s attention.

“A Remington?” Mrs. Sperling chuckled, going over a bronze of a cowboy on a bronc.

“I have my moments.” He shrugged. “Besides, that’s investment art. I got a good deal on it and give me a few years and I’ll get a hell of a profit on it. In fact, I’ve got a signed Ansel Adams print in the dining room. I could get some real bucks on that.”

“Your deals are legendary, Phillip,” replied Mrs. Sperling. Everything He did was legendary. But Mrs. Sperling seemed immune to it. She moved to another bronze. “And what have we here?”

“Now that was a real find.” He leaned against the back of the black leather sofa and folded His arms across His chest. “It’s a bronze by Hans Niedeman. I got it about a year before he died. They’re real rare. He did not do many of them. It’s like the Remington, in that the sculpture is almost a three-dimensional version of the painting.”

“So this is what all the fuss is about.”

“That and the investment value. Most of it isn’t worth that much, more for rich teenagers and upper-middle-class types. But I’ve got some signed pieces that will bring in some money. I’m glad I got into it when I did. It saved me a few bucks.”

Mrs. Sperling laughed. “Young man, when have you ever wanted for anything? You are as penurious as your father.”

He shrugged. “So Dad made sure I knew the value of a buck. You know the industry. I’m doing good now, but it won’t necessarily last. I gotta invest in something to keep me comfortable when the glow fades.”

“Phillip, I find your complete grasp of reality utterly refreshing.” Mrs. Sperling smiled at Him with genuine affection. “And your lack of an over-inflated ego even more so.”

“Who can keep an ego with two younger brothers? Say, Aunt Delilah, have you seen Richard lately?”

“He’s not back from law school already, is he?”

“I heard you were back east last week.

“Briefly. Jimmy’s tour kicked off, and I visited a few friends, but I didn’t leave New York.”

“He’s graduating this December, and at the top of his class. He is so thrilled. He wants you at the graduation.”

“I wouldn’t dream of missing it.” Mrs. Sperling cleared her throat.

I remembered my job. I wandered over to the HN6 where it hung by the window, out of which I refused to look. Reminding myself that I was twelve stories above solid ground was not going to do my nerves any good.

“My brother just got one of these,” I said.

“One of what?” Mrs. Sperling walked over to me.

“This Niedeman print. He says it’s one of the commemoratives.”

“Well, Aunt Delilah?” He ambled over. “Real or fake?”

She sniffed. “The smell seems genuine, so it’s not one of the fakes I’ve been chasing. Where did you get it?”

He held up his hands. “Sorry. Gotta protect my sources.”

“Phillip. I’m certainly the last person to be creating competition.”

“Aunt Delilah, I’d love to tell you. But the guy is real nervous. He’s getting me some terrific deals, and I don’t want to ruin it on an accidental slip of the tongue. Besides, I promised I wouldn’t.”

“I see.” She didn’t believe Him for some reason.

“I bet you do. How about if I offer lunch as a consolation prize, including your dancer hyphen chauffeur.”

“That sounds worthwhile.”

Mrs. Sperling didn’t press the issue.

He insisted on driving us in His BMW. Mrs. Sperling insisted on sitting in the back with Eleanor, which meant I had to sit up front. I was heartbroken. I tried to make some intelligent small talk, but what do you say to a god?

Mrs. Sperling kept the conversational ball rolling and even set up a few opportunities for my brilliant wit and dazzling charm to shine out. I managed not to get tongue-tied and sounded like I had a reasonable command of the language. Other than that, I was pretty quiet.

He was kind of quiet, too, which surprised me a little. At the audition, He’d seemed really outgoing, the kind of person who knows He’s in charge but doesn’t have to ram it down everyone’s throat. He answered Mrs. Sperling’s questions about His family and other little things. He smiled at me. I smiled back, trying not to melt.

We ended up at this little eatery in Santa Monica where several more distinguished members of the Industry were dining. After having been dazzled by Phillip DuPre, and I confess, still under His spell, these other big shots had no impact on me whatsoever. I was so cool, it was disgusting.

It was very satisfying, too, when our waitress just happened to be this little witch I knew from my dance class who was a horrible name dropper and treated me like I was the biggest no-talent in Southern California. She recognized Phillip DuPre immediately. And there I was, having lunch with Him, and on a first name basis. It was certainly one of my better days.

Mrs. Sperling waited until we were eating dessert before bringing up the murder.

“Phillip,” she began, after wrapping her hands around a cup of very good cappuccino. “I know you think you have very good reasons for keeping your friend’s name from me, but please consider, your supplier could know something related to Joshua Stein’s death.”

He winced. “Uh, yeah. I suppose it could.”

Mrs. Sperling sighed. “You know very well it could, young man. I don’t want you doing anything foolish.”

“I’m not going–”

“Phillip.”

He grimaced. “Tell you what. I’ll talk to my source. If he agrees, I’ll set up a meeting between you two. Will that redeem me?”

Mrs. Sperling smiled with maternal affection. “It’s a start.”

After lunch, we went back and got the De Ville. We paid a call on Sergeant Michaelson, who growled that there were no new developments. We tried to pay a call on Ramona Bistler, but she was gone. In desperation, Mrs. Sperling directed me to Dolores Carmine’s. She was in, but not much help.

“You have no idea where Fred Gonzagos might be?” Mrs. Sperling pressed.

“If I had I would’ve told you,” replied Dolores.

“What did he say the last time you saw him?”

“Nothing. He complained about the capitalist fucks and how they don’t recognize his art, and I sympathized. He asked me to loan him a few bucks. I said go piss up a rope. I don’t have a few bucks.”

“What did he want the money for?”

“For a few drinks. What else? The way that son of a bitch drinks, it would take more than a few bucks to get him drunk. But, shit. That’s his problem. I can barely eat as it is.”

“Did he say anything about going anywhere?”

“Just to his favorite bar. Hennessy’s. Down on Sunset, near La Cienega. It’s an okay place. A little too capitalist for my tastes. But it’s okay.”

“About this latest shipment of Niedemans, how many did you get?”

“Shit, about five of them.”

“That’s a lot.”

Dolores just shrugged. “Since when am I gonna argue with some asshole who wants wholesale cost for them? I grabbed the whole bunch.”

“Did it occur to you they might be hot?”

“Why would I think something like that? Fuck, yes, I thought they might be. But I didn’t ask questions. I’m not stupid. Besides, he was Fred’s friend. Fred don’t send me no shit.”

“And Fred is missing. Does he have any relatives that you know of?”

“A sister, I think. Maybe an ex-wife. I don’t know any names.”

“Somehow, I’m not surprised. Well, thank you, Dolores. You’ve been exceptionally kind.”

“Right. See you later.”

We went back to Beverly Hills to find out what company was the private security patrol around Mr. Stein’s gallery. We did get that name. We drove out to their offices only to find that the guard who had been patrolling the night of the murder was sick, and, no, the receptionist could not give out his address or phone number.

Before giving up, Mrs. Sperling had me take her to the Beverly Hills P.D. again. There, she tried to get the girl in the records department to see if Fred Gonzagos had a file in the national crime computer. The girl said she couldn’t. Mrs. Sperling had her call the chief. The chief had already gone home for the day.

“That settles it,” said Mrs. Sperling. “It’s a sign from God. We may as well go home. Eleanor, forward.”

In the car, I tried to cheer her up.

“We’ll get the record tomorrow,” I said. “I’ll run over there first thing after dance class. Or I could even skip dance class.”

“Oh no. Don’t do that.”

“I don’t mind.”

“Darling, you need to keep in shape. I also agreed to support your efforts.”

“You don’t have to. I mean, I’m working for you. You get first priority.”

“Which I’ll take when I need it.”

“Tell you what. I’ll call a couple of my friends and we’ll go out to that Hennessey’s bar tonight. I’ll ask around for Fred and see what I find. If he’s truly a regular, someone will know him.”

“Donna, you do realize that could be dangerous.”

“I’ll call Mickey. He loves a good fight, remember?”

“I do. I hope that is the least of the trouble you find.” Mrs. Sperling sighed. “There is a possibility that Mr. Gonzagos is a pre-meditated killer, and he may not appreciate someone trying to find him. It’s also not unlikely that someone else again might not want Mr. Gonzagos found.”

“I’ll lie about my identity. No big.”

“It could be. You’re as bad as Phillip. The both of you have this fantasy of playing detective. This isn’t a child’s game of cops and robbers. We’re looking for a cold-blooded murderer.”

“I know basic self-defense. And I don’t see you carrying a gun.”

“That doesn’t mean I don’t.”

“But–”

“If I can hear it, I can hit it, and my hearing is very good. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve hardly had to use it. I might also add that there’s a gun in the glove compartment of each of my cars. Just keep in mind the objective is not to use it.”

“You really think I might need a gun if I go to Hennessy’s tonight?”

“Probably not. But it could stir up trouble.”

“Yick. On the other hand, it could probably help things.”

“True.” There was a pause. “Very well. Call your friends, if you wish. However, before you go, we will go over the proper use of firearms, and you will carry one. You’re not permitted for it, but I’d rather pay a fine than for a funeral.”

“So reassuring. You sure you don’t want to come along?”

“No. It’s better that you go without me. I’m hardly inconspicuous.”

Dinner was ready when we got back to the house. I called Tina and Mickey right away, then sat down to eat. Earl was working that night, so Tina was looking for an excuse to get out. Mickey just wanted to go, and a bar suited him fine.

I didn’t tell them I was packing a heater, as they say. I knew how to shoot it, too. Mrs. Sperling made sure of that and promised I’d get some time on a shooting range in the near future.

Hennessey’s was a pretty basic place. A nice restaurant lurked beyond the bar, which was dark and decorated in a pseudo-Victorian style. In one corner a huge projection T.V. displayed a football game. A crowd had gathered around it and cheered on one of the teams. I think it was the Rams, Forty-niners game, but that might have been the following week. I don’t remember, which is odd because I’m an ardent Rams fan.

Mickey and Tina groaned when they saw me heading for the television. Mickey all but picked me up and sat me down at the bar.

“You’ve got other things to do,” he told me.

Tina and I ordered white wine and Mickey got a gin and tonic. The bartender returned with the drinks grumbling about the game. He was bent over and balding and looked as though he’d been mixing drinks since before he was legal.

“You here a lot?” I asked.

“Most every night.”

“There’s this guy, his name’s Fred Gonzagos. I’ve heard he sells artwork. Somebody told me he likes to do his drinking here.”

“Yeah, he does. Hasn’t been in while though.”

“When was the last time you saw him?”

“Last Wednesday.” He squinted at me. “You a cop?”

“Me?” I started. “Are you kidding? I just want to track Fred down. I heard he’s got Niedemans for sale, and he’s the only person in town who’s got ’em. I gotta get one.”

“Well, if he had ’em, they’re all sold by now. He came in here Wednesday pretty happy and with a bit more cash than usual. Said he sold some art. Must be them Niedemans you’re talking about.”

“What time was he here?”

“Early evening, I think. I remember it was later than normal. He missed happy hour. I do know that. He often comes in and eats the hors-d’oeuvres for dinner. Must have been closer to nine, now that I think about it. Bought a couple rounds for these two girls, then made some stupid joke about saving some money for gas.”

I swallowed. “No kidding. You wouldn’t happen to know if he has any relatives or friends that might know where he is, would you?”

“Well, he spends a lot of time cussing out his sister when he gets drunk. I believe her name is Anita. Think she’s married, too.”

“Oh. Great. Well, thanks for the info.”

We only stayed long enough to finish our drinks. I wanted to watch the rest of the football game, but Tina insisted we go someplace either a little quieter or with dancing. We got stuck with the quieter. Most places don’t have dancing on Monday nights. Mickey was disappointed that things had gone so smoothly.

The next morning, I visited the police station briefly after class. When I got home I was surprised to see the kitchen empty. Voices floated in from the dining room.

“Has she considered a breast augmentation?” asked one, a male voice. My heart stopped. It was His.

“Phillip!” gasped Mrs. Sperling.

“It’s a professional issue,” He protested.

“Phillip.”

“Aw, come on, Aunt Delilah. You know that doesn’t turn me on. I think she’s perfectly gorgeous the way she is. But it wouldn’t hurt her career, and we both know it.”

Mrs. Sperling coughed, then called, “Why don’t you come in, Donna?”

They were having brunch, spinach souffle, and baked applesauce. Mrs. Sperling invited me to join them.

“I, uh, don’t exactly smell good,” I protested. “I’ve been working out.”

“Won’t bother me any,” He said, staring at His plate for some reason.

“It’s well within bearable limits for me,” added Mrs. Sperling. “And you need to eat.”

“Well, uh, thanks.” I sat down nervously and helped myself.

“Donna, what was your agent’s name?” asked Mrs. Sperling.

“The theatrical one I’m giving up?”

“You are?” He finally looked at me.

I felt myself blush and really worked at sounding cool and calm. “I’m not getting sent out on enough auditions. It has been a slow season but not that slow. My friend, Tina, has gone out on three or four and got called back twice.”

“Is your friend, Tina, a dancer?” He asked.

“Yeah. She’s really good, and beautiful. She has this really exotic look, almost like a cross between a Black and an Asian, only she’s all Black. She’s real pretty and a terrific actress.”

“We want to know your agent’s name, dear,” pressed Mrs. Sperling.

“Jerry Lawton, over at Lawton, Wheaton, and Weiss,” I said.

“Sh–” He saw Mrs. Sperling’s frown and shook His head. “Him.”

“You seem to know him,” said Mrs. Sperling.

“The man is scum. He does great for his men, but if a girl isn’t into fun and games, he sends her out to just enough auditions and for bad jobs.”

“He’s never made a pass at me,” I said, indignantly.

“He probably has.” He went back to His plate. “You’ve just missed it, is all.”

“Well, there’s got to be at least one honest agent out there,” I grumbled.

He looked at me with a guilty smile. “Yeah, Diogenes, there are a few.”

“Well, why don’t you recommend one, Phillip,” said Mrs. Sperling with a sly grin.

He smiled at her. “Um. She could try Shelly Carson, at the Talent Company.”

“I thought you didn’t like her,” said Mrs. Sperling.

“Okay, she gets more money out of me than I want to spend.” He smiled at me again. “Sometimes there are more important things than budgets.” He got up and wiped His mouth. “I gotta run, Aunt Delilah.”

“Off to cast your new film?” She smiled as He kissed her cheek.

“That’s tomorrow. And it’s a video.”

“That’s right. I had forgotten.”

During that time my heart took a diving leap to my feet. If He was casting a video, there were good odds He needed dancers. And there I was, selling Him on my friend instead of me. Not that I begrudged Tina the sell. I just could have spent some time on me, too.

He turned that wonderful smile on me then fled. I melted and forgave Him for every time He wouldn’t cast me.

Mrs. Sperling only waited long enough for the door to shut.

“My dear Donna, it would appear to me that you are completely infatuated with Phillip.”

“Fat lot of good it’s going to do me. I can’t even put in a plug for myself.”

“There, there. Don’t give up hope yet. If you’re finished eating, hurry and clean up, and call that Shelley Carson. Tell her you can bring her a picture and resume today. Then bring the V.W. around. I’m in a top-down mood, and we’ve got other errands to run, too.”

 

 

 

mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Six

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

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

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

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

“Sure. Can I eat first?”

“You should.”

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

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

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

“Mrs. Sperling?” I asked.

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

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

“I should, but it’s totally boring.”

“You’re in school?” I asked.

“Yeah. U.C.L.A.”

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

“Psych.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Mm?” she softly moaned as I entered.

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

“Put it on the bedside table.”

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

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

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

“Where did you read that?”

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

“They’re blind to it?”

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

“Well, you’re a widow.”

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

“It was?”

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

“You still miss him.”

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

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

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

“What happened?”

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

“Was it a fake?”

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

“So maybe he is counterfeiting.”

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

“Okay. Is there anything planned for tomorrow?”

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

“Not really.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you get to talk with Ramona Bistler?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure. Eleanor, come.”

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

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

“Hey!” Peter yelped.

“You quit being so snotty,” reprimanded Elise.

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

“Thanks, Donna.” Peter glared at me.

“Children,” sighed my father.

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

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

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

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

“So am I,” I said with a slight grin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No kidding. Where?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I’m sure,” Peter retorted.

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

“So can I,” I said, smugly.

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

“Since Glen Weir got stuck with a fake.”

“Who’s he?”

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

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

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

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

“Flakey?” I asked. “How?”

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

“Dolores Carmine!” I almost jumped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” he asked.

“Just trust me.”

“Peter, can you please?” Elise asked.

“Alright.”

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

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

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

Dolores shrugged noncommittally. “What the fuck.”

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

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

“What was his name?”

“Do I fucking look like I’d ask?”

“Do you remember what he looked like?”

“Tallish with dishwater hair.”

“Are the prints genuine?”

“Fuck, yes.”

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

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

“Those aren’t exactly the best credentials.”

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

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

“Not since early last week.”

“Any idea where he is?”

Dolores frowned. “Why? Is he missing?”

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

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

“Uh, no.”

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

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

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

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

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

“He has his moments,” said Elise.

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

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

“Why not?” asked Peter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Elise.” Peter shifted with the guilty warning.

I laughed. “Don’t tell me…”

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

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

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

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

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

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