Chapter Thirteen

White House Rhapsody started out as a novel that wouldn’t end. The romantic fiction serial was a popular blog site on its own and it’s being featured here on my main blog.

Pull Quote for romantic fiction serial White House Rhapsody: It's one of the few cheap thrills I have left.

The flight to Los Angeles wasn’t particularly full. Sharon, Michael, and Inez sat in a center section in the first-class cabin, a luxury Sharon seldom indulged in, but a necessity for Michael. Still, Sharon had to concede, as she sat back in the bigger seats and stretched out her legs, that first class had its compensations.

Michael had headphones on even before the plane took off and was soon in his own little world, switching through the channels on the seat back TV. Inez dozed for a bit, then as the flight attendants served drinks, she and Sharon began chatting.

“You sure you’re okay about Toby living with you guys?” Sharon asked, finally. “You seemed so ambivalent about it last night.”

“Oh, it’s not Toby,” Inez said, glancing at Michael, who clearly hadn’t heard a word. “Seriously, it isn’t. I adore her and we’ve always gotten along well. It’s just… My biological clock, you know?”

Sharon’s eyebrows lifted. “I thought you didn’t want kids.”

“I thought I didn’t either.” Inez smiled. “But now there’s Michael and he’s such a great dad. I see some of my friends with their babies and I can’t help thinking how nice it would be.” She shrugged. “Maybe not.”

“Michael want to?”

“He’s warming to the idea, I think. He doesn’t want to start over, and he’s afraid we’ll split and he’ll be parenting from a distance again.”

“I can’t blame him for that.” Sharon shook her head. “If there was anything that Cameron did that made me mad, it’s the way she didn’t want Michael around as much as he wanted.”

Inez nodded. “Well, I’m pretty sure Michael and I won’t split. And even if we do, I hope I have the good sense not to keep him from his kids. Those girls adore him.”

“Yeah.” Sharon nodded and sighed.

Inez nodded as well and the two lapsed into silence. Sharon found herself musing about babies and having one and was rather startled to realize that she was seeing Mark Jerguessen in the background as the father. She looked over at Inez, who had started dozing again. Sharon shook her head to clear her mind and picked up a book, hoping somehow that she could exorcise that last image.

Sharon felt somewhat wrung out by the time she followed Michael and Inez off the plane at Los Angeles International airport. Michael already had his phone out and was dialing.

“We’re down,” he told the person on the other end. “Terrific. We’ll meet you at the baggage claim… Uh-huh. Cool. See you there.”

“Meet who?” asked Sharon, shifting her carry-on.

“Sarah and Susan,” Michael said, grinning. “Suse said she can take me to their car while you and Inez get the bags.”

Sharon glared at him as she addressed Inez. “Amazing how he always manages to get out of tiresome little chores like that.”

“I know,” said Inez. “One of these days.”

“What?” Michael asked.

As the three spilled into the waiting area next to the baggage claim, Sharon spotted Sarah first. Her youngest sister was bouncing up and down and waving. Sharon cringed, hoping that people wouldn’t recognize who she was waving at. Michael didn’t seem to mind and scooped Sarah up in his arms as the young woman ran his way.

“How’s the baby!” he teased.

Sarah slapped his arm. “Michael, put me down!”

She was about Sharon’s height and mostly slender. Her hair that day was its natural light brown and cut shaggy and short. She had a small dimple in her nose where she’d worn a nose ring until piercing got popular.

“Hey, Sarah,” said Sharon, as Sarah pounced on her.

“It’s great to see you!” Sarah crowed.

“You’re looking abnormally normal,” Inez said as she got her hug.

Sarah was, in capri jeans and a paint-splattered t-shirt.

She shrugged. “Why not? I’ve got my artist cred. Hey, Suse! Here they are.”

“No kidding,” Susan said back, being almost on top of them.

Somewhat paler than she’d been before her accident, Susan still carried herself like the dancer she was, at least from the waist up. Her left arm was in a brace, but she sat in a yellow-striped racing wheelchair. Her brown hair had also been cropped and she wore a black top and jeans. Sharon bent to hug her.

“Good to see you, Suse,” she said softly.

“Good to see you.” Susan grinned. “And since Sarah here has done such a great job of attracting all kinds of attention, I’d better get the Swelled Head to the car before we get swamped by autograph seekers.”

“And he wonders…” Sharon sighed, spotting the furtive looks aimed at Michael as people in the crowd tried to figure out who he was.

“I’m not attracting attention,” Sarah said. “My god, we’re in an airport. You expect people to holler and hug and all that.”

“It’s not like they’ve been gone that long,” Susan replied. “We saw them at Christmas. That was only a few months ago.”

“Come on, Suse,” said Michael. “Let’s get to the car.”

After the luggage was collected, the group reunited at the older Honda Accord that was actually their parents’ car. Michael had bought more recent models for his parents, but they kept the older car as a backup for when their children visited. Michael did help load the trunk with Sharon’s suitcase, Sharon’s and Michael’s guitars, and Susan’s chair.

Still chattering, Sarah drove from the airport, first out to Pasadena and Michael’s weekend condo, so that he and Inez could spend the afternoon with Jodi (it being Jodi’s birthday that day) before Jodi celebrated with her mother and grandparents from that side of the family. From there, Sarah drove Sharon and Susan to their parents’ home in Placentia, a small suburb in the north of Orange County.

It was a comfortable, two-story house, with dark wood siding and white trim. The lawn was carefully kept and the jacaranda tree that had been a twig when the Wheatlys first bought the place was now a decent-sized tree. The early spring air was just right but the tree still had another month before its distinctive purple blooms would show. Sarah pulled the car into the garage and left the garage door open as she got Susan’s chair from the trunk.

“Usually, I just toss it in the back seat,” Susan grumbled as she took the chair from Sarah and opened it. “I’m getting really sick of this being driven around stuff. I gotta get Michael to buy me one of those hand-control cars. Maybe one of those hybrids.”

Sharon yawned. “Yeah. Where are Maman and Dad?”

Sarah grinned. “Maman’s scoping out the site for her latest. She and Dad will be installing it all week. Share, you are so gonna freak out when you see it – and don’t ask. I’ve been sworn to secrecy.”

Madeleine Wheatly had always been a sculptor. With her children grown and her husband’s job not moving them all over the place, she had finally found the opportunity to follow her passion for the truly large and was developing quite a following for her huge public art pieces – the kinds of metallic sculpture found in parks and on city plazas.

Sharon hefted her suitcase out of the car and followed Susan and Sarah into the house to a chorus of barking from her parents’ two dogs, then banished to the back yard. Sharon had never lived there, at least not for any length of time. Her parents had bought the house when Sharon was in her second year of college and Sarah was just starting high school. It was a large place with five bedrooms upstairs, and a living room, dining room, kitchen, family room and den downstairs. The den, however, had been transformed into a studio for Madeleine and was where she did most of her preliminary work and smaller sculptures.

When friends of the family asked Madeleine why she and Robert had bought such a huge house when they only had Sarah at home and soon to leave, herself, Madeleine always smiled and said that she needed room for her grandchildren. What she had meant, as Sharon and her siblings knew full well, was that Madeleine not only wanted enough space so that the whole family could visit but also to accommodate any relatives from Belgium or Wisconsin, where her husband was from.

Nonetheless, Sharon did have a room that was more or less hers. Still feeling a tad groggy from the flight and the time change, she pulled her suitcase upstairs to her room and dropped it next to the bed. It had a floral print bedspread on it, which complimented the light green walls and the white French provincial furniture in the room.

The two shaggy tan mutts known as Coco and Mimi burst into the room. They were medium-sized. Coco was almost twelve years old and her formerly dark muzzle had gone white, but Mimi was only four and still very rambunctious. Sharon petted them both fondly.

As she came downstairs with the dogs on her heels, she noted that the living room looked the same as it had for the past few years – with red and gold striped drapes, black sofas and Sarah’s collage/mural along the back wall featuring a landscape view of the city of Liege, Belgium, from the scenic overlook at the north of the city.

But as Sharon made her way into the open family room and kitchen area, she noticed that the family room and dining room in the house had changed significantly. The red and gold drapes, similar to the ones in the living room were gone, and the dining room was mostly decked out in chartreuse and yellows, while the family room had mostly white and yellow furniture and drapes.

“Did Maman redecorate again?” Sharon asked her sisters, who were lounging in the family room.

Susan rolled her eyes and bent to scratch Coco’s head. “Oh, yeah. I think it was the Hennesseys. They gave her that Trojan flag for Christmas and I’m pretty sure that sent her over the edge.”

Sharon sighed and shook her head. It was a common problem. Madeleine used red and gold in her home décor in honor of the Wallonie, the French-speaking part of Belgium, where she was from. Unfortunately, too many people interpreted that as meaning the family were fans of the USC Trojans, whose colors were red and gold. Given that all of Madeleine’s children, except Susan, had gotten at least part of their education at UCLA (aka USC’s crosstown rivals), it was not a happy misconception.

The phone rang and Sarah grabbed it.

“Michael!” she groaned. “How lame can you get? Go to hell, jackass.”

And she slammed the phone down.

“What was that all about?” Susan asked.

“Our idiot brother,” said Sarah. “He said, ‘Office of the President for Ms. Sharon Wheatly.’  Like we were going to fall for that.”

Sharon gulped and looked down at her hands. “Merde!”

“What?” asked Susan.

“My phone. It’s in my purse upstairs,” Sharon said. “That’s probably why he’s calling here.”

“You mean?” Sarah asked. “Share, you gotta be kidding. It was Michael, I swear.”

“Not bloody likely,” Sharon said. “The boss makes his own phone calls and even if he didn’t, his secretary is a guy.”

“No way,” Sarah said.

The phone rang again and Sharon dove for it.

“Hello?” she asked.

“Office of the president for Ms. Sharon Wheatly,” said the all too familiar voice on the other end.

“Good afternoon, sir, this is Ms. Wheatly,” she replied as Sarah gulped.

The voice on the other end broke down in laughter.

“That—” he gasped. “That’s one of the best responses I’ve gotten in a while.”

“I see,” Sharon said, keeping her voice calm and trying to ignore the stares of her two sisters.

“Coop’s kids were pretty fun for a while,” Mark said, finally getting a grip on his laughter. “But now they’re all blasé about the president calling their house.”

“How can I help you today, sir?” Sharon asked.

“We had a man at the town hall meeting who brought up something I think we’ll want to cover when we’re in Mexico,” said Mark. He was touring the Midwest, attending town hall meetings and making speeches to enlist support for his education initiatives.

“Sure. Let me get something to write with.” Sharon looked frantically at the phone niche – basically a cabinet and desk unit tucked just inside the kitchen where it could be easily reached from both the kitchen and the family room. The desk surface was littered with magazines and sketches, but no notepaper and the pen cup held only a small paintbrush and two metal cocktail stir sticks. Sharon covered the mouthpiece and looked at her sisters. “I need a notepad and pen.”

Susan pointed at Sarah, who tried to look innocent. Sharon sighed. She at least knew where the notepads had gone and had a very good idea where all the pens and pencils had disappeared to, as well.

“Sir, I’m sorry, but you’ve caught us a little off-guard here,” Sharon said.

Mark chuckled guiltily. “Uh, that was kind of the idea. Why don’t I call your mobile?”

“That’d be perfect,” Sharon said. “But give me a few minutes to get upstairs so I can get it out of my purse.”

“Sure thing,” said Mark and he disconnected.

“I thought you were on vacation,” Susan said.

“There’s no such thing when you work at the White House,” Sharon said, hurrying back up the stairs. “And, Sarah, don’t even think about grabbing any of my notepads.”

Sarah waved the notepad she was working on at that moment. “Too late.”

Sharon groaned. “You better have left me one with some paper in it.”

“Of course,” said Sarah turning back to the small legal pad, on which she was drawing a set of eagles at different positions on each page, effectively animating the majestic bird in flight.

Sharon quickly and quietly shut the door to her room, grabbed her mobile phone from its pocket in her purse and turned it on. A minute later, it was ringing.

“Wheatly,” she said, clicking the answer button.

“Let me guess, we’re in a better place to talk?” Mark said from his end of the line.

“Yes and hopefully, my rotten sister hasn’t stolen all my notepads.” Sharon dug through her purse, having found a pen, but still couldn’t put her hands on a notepad.

“The one who called me a jerk?” Mark began laughing again.

“I’m so sorry about that. She thought you were my brother.”

“Ah. Michael’s your brother. That was a pretty priceless reaction.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t have the mobile on.”

“I wouldn’t have known. I called the house first.”

Sharon frowned. “In other words, you called the house specifically to freak my family out.”

Mark chuckled. “Yeah. Me bad boy. It’s one of the few cheap thrills I have left.”

“I could have done without it.” Sharon glared at her purse, then emptied it out on the bed. “That little brat. She got all of them.”

“Huh?”

“My sister Sarah.” Sharon flopped onto the bed. “It’s one of the few downsides of having artists in the family. My mom is constantly picking up a pen or pencil, doing a quick sketch for some piece she wants to cast, then getting distracted. She wears her hair on top of her head, and sticks the pen or pencil in her hair and go does whatever. So all the pens and pencils end up in her bathroom or in her studio. Dad picks them up, too, and wanders off with them. But Sarah’s the worst offender. Not only does she grab all the pencils and scatters them hither and yon, she steals notepads to make flip books out of them.”

“Flipbooks?”

Sharon sighed. “They’re little books that when you flip through the pages, you get some animated mini-film on them?”

“Oh, yeah. Those are cool.”

“Well, Sarah loves doing them. She used to do a lot of animation when she was in high school. And because she loves what she calls found art, she grabs whatever notepads she can get her hands on and makes flipbooks out of them.” Sharon started going through the exterior pockets on her suitcase. “She really likes those little notepads the realtors always give out – she can crank out a flipbook out of one of those is a couple hours and the paper is just heavy enough. And my mini-legal pads are her second favorite, for some reason. It only takes her a couple days.”

“What does she do with them when she’s done?”

“Sells them. They’re surprisingly popular for doodles on ripped off notepads, but that’s because Sarah’s really good. Sometimes she colors them, sometimes she just does pencil drawings. But she gets some good money from them and she’s been going really crazy of late, because she donates the sales money to spinal cord injury research. For my other sister. Anyway, what was the point you wanted for the Mexicans?”

“Oh, I already emailed it to you.”

“Good. I’ll get right on it.”

“No rush. How’s the homecoming been so far?”

Sharon shrugged. “I’ve just barely gotten here.”

“I won’t keep you, then. Talk to you again soon.” Mark disconnected.

He gently set the phone back down on the desktop, gazing around at the office suite on Air Force One, where he was sitting. Given the huge amount of resources involved in getting him from one place to another, Mark had been trying to balance the need to be out where folks could connect with him with his commitment not to squander resources. It had taken some doing to convince the Air Force not to fly a second plane as back up every time he left Washington, but that had meant stationing multiple versions of the Air Force One plane at several key locations.

Mark tapped the Danish modern blond-wood desk again. June had overseen getting the plane re-decorated since the inauguration and the office had been done over in soothing blues with creamy tan accents. At least, that’s what June had told Mark. He looked around the office and had to concede June was right again.

He wondered what June would have to say about Sharon. He knew the two were getting to be pretty close friends. He also liked to think he and Sharon were getting to be good friends. He sighed, wondering why he’d bothered to call Sharon back when he could have just as easily sent the information via email and, in fact, had just done so. He frowned. He knew why he had. He’d wanted to hear her voice, wanted to chat with her just for the fun of it. And he didn’t want to think about not seeing her for the rest of the week.

The intercom buzzed.

“Mr. President?” asked the young Marine serving as his valet that trip, Corporal Evans. “You asked me to call you when it’s time to go.”

“Thanks, Corporal.” Mark stood carefully, balanced himself on his crutches and hitched up his jeans.

He was headed for a dinner-time meet and greet at a bar in Texas – enemy territory, Tanks had joked. Still, he’d gotten some good ideas from these kinds of events and they did build good will. And Mark knew he’d need a lot of it to put his education proposals in place. Sighing, he left the office, took the cowboy hat from Corporal Evans and headed out

In Pasadena, things were considerably less sanguine. Michael paced in the kitchen in Cameron’s home. It was one of those large country kitchens, with red granite counter tops and maple wood cabinets and matching wood floors. Michael paced between the island in the middle, while Cameron and Inez sat in the adjacent matching breakfast nook.

“Look, Cameron, we already told her she could come live with me,” Michael said. “All the conditions are spelled out in the paperwork. What more do you want?”

“I want my daughter to live with me,” Cameron said, her voice shaking with emotion. “What part of that don’t you get?”

Michael turned on her. “Don’t I get? I’ve been wanting to live with my daughter for most of her life.”

“You’ll have the girls in Africa with you this summer.” Cameron folded her arms stubbornly.

“They don’t want to go to Africa,” Michael snarled. “Jodi danced around it all afternoon. Practically spoiled her own birthday because she doesn’t want to go to Africa. Toby has been begging me not to take her since the idea came up.”

“Well then, maybe you ought to do something else this summer,” Cameron said.

“It’s work and it’s for a good cause.”

Cameron rolled her eyes. “Right. Your work. It always comes first. Before the girls. Before me.”

“Don’t even start that,” Michael growled back. “Don’t even. Just because your dad put his life on hold doesn’t mean he did the right thing.”

“He acted responsibly,” Cameron fought to keep her voice from rising and failed.

“And resented you for it,” Michael shot back. “Which you spent endless hours complaining about. Excuse me if I don’t want to make the same mistake. Excuse me if I think it’s possible to balance taking care of kids and living a dream. Oh, wait. That’s not going to happen because if it did, we wouldn’t be divorced and I wouldn’t be constantly fighting you to spend more time with my two children. Like a responsible father.”

“Miguel, vas.” Inez said suddenly.

Michael glared at Cameron, then took Inez’ advice and stalked off.

Cameron sniffed. “He’s so frickin’ stubborn.”

“He is,” Inez said. “But he’s also got a point. Cameron, I know you love your babies and I know why. They’re wonderful girls. But he loves them, too.”

“Then why isn’t he willing to sacrifice anything for them?” Cameron said, her tears finally falling. “It’s always his career. Always.”

“That’s not true, Cameron.” Inez laid her hand on Cameron’s arm. “He gave up several dates this week so he could be here for Jodi’s birthday. He’s always done that. It used to make me crazy when he’d insist on flying back here every other weekend so he could be with his girls. It’s tough booking somebody who does that.”

“But why couldn’t he just settle down with us?”

Inez shook her head. “As if that would have helped? Come on, Cameron. I’ve seen you and your dad together. It’s not pretty.”

“My dad made a necessary sacrifice.”

“Because your mom made him. And it nearly killed him and trashed your relationship with him because he couldn’t help resenting you and your mom for making him work in a music store instead of performing.”

Cameron frowned. “Well, he’s performing now.”

“And why does that surprise you?” Inez smiled. “Frankly, I’m surprised he lasted as long as he did. Which says a lot about how much he loves you.” She sighed. “I shouldn’t be saying this, but I once asked Michael why he didn’t give up the touring and all that, like you wanted him to. He told me your father told him not to.”

Cameron snorted. “That sounds like Dad.”

“Well? Who do you have a better relationship with? Your mom?”

“I wish.” Cameron wiped at her eyes. “She’s still trying to raise my kids for me.”

“So how well do you think it worked? Your parents gave up their dreams and everything else to raise you right and made themselves miserable in the process, not to mention totally alienating you. Do you want that to happen to you and Toby?”

Cameron squeezed her eyes shut. “Of course, I don’t. I just wish there was another way.”

Inez smiled and patted her arm. “Yeah. I know. It sucks. But at least you have your daughters. It’s not unlikely that the best I’ll get is the chance to share them with you. And they are very good girls.”

“Thanks.” Cameron let out a bitter chuckle. “Until they get stubborn. Then they’re just like their dad.” She sniffed again. “Where’s the paperwork?”

“Right here and here’s a pen.”

Look, Ma! I Made Farn!

Image of old jeans and finished farn from tutorial on how to make fabric yarn,

This is a little tutorial on how to make fabric yarn. It’s also a bit about why you would want to.

Fabric yarn, or farn, is yarn you make from large pieces of fabric. There are any number of ways to do this, but, basically, you make long strips that you eventually knit or crochet just like you would any other yarn. Except that farn is really, really bulky. You’re not going to make socks with this stuff. Maybe not even slippers.

What got me into making farn was that I have boxes and boxes of old, holey jeans that can’t be donated because they’re too ratty and thrashed (fashion be damned). So rather than adding to our waste problem, I’ve been looking for creative and fun ways to turn them into something else.

The problem with re-making clothes is that you generally have way more clothes than you’ve got useful projects. I’ve made several bags out of the seats of worn pants, but how many bags does one need in a lifetime? Certainly more than the seats of worn pants that I have.

The good thing about farn is that you need lots and lots of it to make anything. The bad thing about farn is that it is very time-consuming to make. On the other hand, it’s a very soothing thing to do when you’re about ready to do something violent to, say, the computers at an overly automated medical provider (not that I ever would, except virtually, but today it’s been very tempting).

How to make fabric yarn

You need some really sharp and solid sheers to make this easier. And the first thing you do is cut the seat off the jeans and save that to make a tote bag at some point. Or something else. Then you cut off all the seams and hems.

Cutting off the seams and hems of a pant leg for making farn.

The process is really pretty simple. At the short edge of a piece of fabric – in this case, the leg of the jeans – you start cutting a strip, about half an inch wide (it’s okay to eyeball it), off of the long edge of your piece. You cut all the way to the other short edge, but you do not cut through to the edge. You leave about half an inch of uncut fabric at that edge. Then, on that same short edge, you start cutting from that edge all the way to within half an inch of the first short edge. You can use a rotary cutter, and you can draw lines first, but it doesn’t really speed things up any.

Now, you may notice there’s a bit of a problem with pant legs. They’re not an even rectangle. There’s the point that kind of sticks out that forms the crotch. And most jeans legs get narrower at the hem because your ankles are narrower than your thighs – and should be. There are two ways to deal with this. One is to even things up and use the scraps for patches or some quilting project. Or you can treat the curved edge like you would a short edge and just not have really long parts before you start cutting from the bottom. Play around and see what works for you.

What you do with your farn is up to you. You can crochet rag rugs with it. I’m going to knit a really long jacket based on a Kaffe Fassett pattern that I’ve been wanting to make for years. I’ve made a seat cover with some farn that I made from an old, dead bed skirt. The options are pretty much endless. Unfortunately, so is the supply of ratty jeans.

It’s Launch Day for Death of the City Marshal!

Cover art fpr the historical mystery Novel Death of the City Marshal by Anne Louise Bannon, the second in the Old Los Angeles series

Think I’m a little excited? This is the second in the Old Los Angeles series. The first is Death of the Zanjero.

In Death of the City Marshal, Maddie Wilcox gets drawn into trying to find out who really killed Marshal William Warren. Okay, I massaged the history a touch. Marshal William Warren was L.A.’s first official police chief. He was also the first officer to be killed in the line of duty. I kid you not, he was shot by his own deputy Joseph Dye in a fight over the bounty on a prostitute.

Even though in real life, Warren did die of his wound from the gun battle, I did need a mystery, so in the book (it is fiction), Warren is actually killed by someone else. But I really worked hard to get all the facts straight surrounding the gun battle and the events of the next few days.

The book is available through Barnes and Noble, Apple, Google Books, Smashwords, Amazon, and Kobo.

Essays, general essay

Death of the City Marshal is Coming Soon!

I am seriously excited to announce my May release, Death of the City Marshal. It’s the second in the Old Los Angeles series, featuring Maddie Wilcox.

City Marshal is based on the real shooting of City Marshal William Warren by his deputy Joseph Dye. At least, that part is real. I may have massaged the actual history just a bit to get a story out of it.

It’s October, 1870, and once again, violence erupts on the streets of Los Angeles. City Marshal William Warren gets into a gunfight with his deputy Joseph Dye, and is severely wounded. Fortunately, winemaker and physician Maddie Wilcox is on the scene to take care of the marshal. But the next day, she finds that the marshal has been smothered in his bed. The morning after the marshal’s death, red paint is splashed all over the front porch of his home, and a list of his sins posted on the front. The list of people with grievances against the fiery-tempered marshal is long. But then another prominent citizen has his sins posted and house front splattered. Maddie takes an interest in the vandalism in the hopes of finding Marshal Warren’s killer. But she soon finds out that she is up against a killer driven by a profound longing, and who is prepared to do the worst to keep that most basic of human desires: a home.

And now, here it is, the cover for Death of a City Marshal.

You can find out more about the novel and pre-order it on its landing page.

mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Twenty

Did that one ever make the headlines. The search warrant turned up over five million dollars worth of stolen property in Willoughby’s apartment. According to the D.A.’s office, at least five different fraud and theft scams were accounted for by the loot, including one where the victim didn’t even know his stuff had been taken.

Mrs. Sperling managed to stay out of the newspapers, as usual. But my family figured out who the “private citizen” was and insisted on details when Phil and I went over there for dinner that Sunday. We diplomatically omitted the snake incident.

As for that, Willoughby just happened to be off duty that night and unable to prove his whereabouts all evening. They also dug up an old record that showed Willoughby had been in on the arrest of some guys who had stolen the snakes from a trainer. The trainer had never gotten them back, and it was assumed the snakes had been lost, until, of course, they showed in Glen’s bedroom. All I have to do is whisper snake, and Glen still turns pale.

Stein’s will got through probate without a hitch, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you feel about Ramona Bistler. She didn’t really give a damn about Willoughby getting caught, but Edgar Hendricks was very relieved to know he was off the hook. It turned out that the night of the murder they were together in Ventura, which accounted for Bistler’s empty gas tank. They were trying to keep it a secret because of the money. They moved in together right away in spite of Montoinne’s objections. I understand Mrs. Sperling had a little chat with Ms. Bistler the day Willoughby was arrested.

The building that Stein’s gallery had been in was eventually sold. I heard later that the owner of Best Rentals had decided to work out of his house.

We never did find out what Devon and Stein had been arguing about. Devon was delighted that he didn’t have to pay for the broken pottery after all. He hadn’t even been aware that he’d been suspected. As for seeing him those two nights, well, he really is everywhere. Gillian quit and moved to New York. Devon tried to offer me her job, but I preferred the one I had.

Tina, Mickey and I all got cast in the video. We had a blast shooting it. Phil and Mickey are getting to be pretty good friends, too. Mickey’s stint at the Laugh Factory was a smash. He got held over and signed again for another stint later the next year. Tina keeps teasing Phil and asking when he’s shooting his next video. Phil’s casting one right now, but he doesn’t need any dancers. I told Tina I wasn’t even getting cast, and she said that didn’t matter.

I’ve been working. I did a guest star spot, and I’ve got a second lead in a film that starts shooting this spring in the Bahamas. Mrs. Sperling “just happened” to decide to visit her parents in Japan the five weeks I needed to do it.

I never did get another car. Phil kept joking around about buying me a new one, until my mother threatened to crown him. Other than that, my parents love Phil, even though they know he’s in showbiz. Dad heard about Phil’s real estate investments and was thrilled.

Glen got his HN6 eventually. Mrs. Sperling broke down and bought it for him for his birthday, which was right after Thanksgiving.

“Are you sure it’s real?” he asked her.

“Of course,” she replied. “The nose knows, doesn’t it?”

Here ends a Nose for a Niedeman. And, guess what? It’s now available as a book on Amazon, BarnesandNoble and other fine retailers. Please click here to get your copy. And books make great gifts. Buy a copy for your friends.

mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Nineteen

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

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

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

Glen shook his head, still gasping.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There were two of them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

“But why Glen?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will,” Phil replied belligerently.

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

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

“Diamondbacks,” said the snake handler.

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

“They’ve had their rattles cut off.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure. Glen?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs. Osgood bustled in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Eleven, as usual.”

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

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

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

“I fell asleep,” he grumbled.

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

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

“How would you know? You live alone.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Must be,” sighed Phil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you.”

“Where’s Aunt Delilah?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Brown.”

“Not black?”

Glen made a disgusted face. “Yuck.”

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

“I’d say he totally had no taste.”

“Phillip, would you say the same?”

“Perhaps not in those words, but yeah.”

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

“I don’t get it,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ll risk it,” she said, smiling.

She hurried off to get Eleanor’s harness.

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

Sergeant Michaelson was yet again waiting for us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought you did.” Willoughby frowned.

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

“Yeah. I think I remember that. So?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Eighteen

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

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

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

“Phil isn’t either,” I said.

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

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

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

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

The phone rang and I went ahead answered it.

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

“Is… Um… Your video cast?”

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

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

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

“At the Delgados, at six-thirty.”

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

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

“Fine. See you tonight.”

I hung up, wondering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did you do then?”

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

“How well did you know Mr. Hoffman?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?” Glen grimaced.

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

We ignored him.

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

“Quite so. What happened?”

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

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

“But how?” I asked.

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

“But what about Hoffman?” asked Sergeant Michaelson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good.”

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

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

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

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

“Certainly,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I hope Mrs. Sperling doesn’t mind.”

“How is she going to know?”

“She’ll find a way.”

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

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

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

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

“She’s ready,” yelled Mimi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The what?”

“Just teasing.”

Mrs. Sperling laughed.

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

“That may or may not be encouraging.”

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

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

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

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

“It was worth a try,” Phil replied.

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

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

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

I was stopped by a series of bloodcurdling screams.