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.
“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.”
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?”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.