mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Five

I spent that afternoon reading. Around six I took the limo out to see if it needed gas. The tank was half full. I went ahead and filled it the rest of the way. At seven-thirty I got dressed and braided my hair. I didn’t have a uniform. Mrs. Sperling had told me I wouldn’t need one. I still felt I had to look something like the part. Besides, I had a plan.

“I do hope you will keep your ears open while we’re at the party,” Mrs. Sperling said on the way over. “Hired help is notorious for gossiping, and you never know when you might pick up an interesting tidbit.”

“No problem,” I answered. “Maybe we ought to set up some sort of signal in case I catch something hot.”

“I was about to suggest that. Your predecessor used to whistle.”

“I can do that. I’m something of a virtuoso.” I snickered with pride.

“Mozart, Symphony Number Forty, in G Minor.”

“Uh, which one’s that?”

Mrs. Sperling whistled from the first movement.

“That one.” I started whistling along.

After a few bars, Mrs. Sperling dropped out and just listened.

“I’m impressed,” she said.

“I have a weakness for Mozart,” I confessed.

“That’s a blessing. All Jimmy could manage was ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame.’  I enjoy Mozart, although Beethoven is my weakness.”

“Really? Do you just listen to classical music?”

“Heavens, no. Glen recently introduced me to Beyonce and JayZ. I also like Glen Miller, Ray Charles, the Beatles, Wagner, Lady Gaga, Beach Boys, some Van Halen, Benny Goodman…”

“And the list goes on. That’s quite a combination.”

“I have very eclectic tastes, and I make a point of keeping up on what’s current in the popular arts, as well as the more esoteric ones. My father always encouraged me to try new things. He was the only adult I knew who liked rock and roll when I was young.”

“I hope I stay that young. Looks like we’re here. Why don’t you stay put when I stop, and I’ll strut out all the hot stuff I learned in chauffeur school.”

Mrs. Sperling chuckled. “Most certainly. I love a good entrance.”

Eleanor was the first out of the car. Mrs. Sperling first tested for the curb with her foot, a movement so smooth I barely noticed it. As she stood, she stumbled and caught my shoulder.

“You okay?” I asked as she righted herself.

“Perfectly all right. Give me an hour, then you can go dancing with your friends.”

“Mrs. Sperling!” I groaned.

“Those were your tentative plans, weren’t they?”

“Yes. Another educated guess?”

“Confirmed by your clothing.” She ducked her head mischievously. “I’m sorry. That stumble was no accident. I was trying to confirm my guess. Spaghetti straps under your sweater and a full jersey skirt?”

“I wanted to look like a chauffeur and save time by not changing. You take as long as you want. My friends know I may not show.”

“I don’t want to take very long anyway. At this point, I’ll use any excuse.”

“Okay. You know your way up the drive?”

“Yes, thank you. Park the car around back, and don’t worry about whistling loudly. I’ve pretty sharp ears.”

“I can imagine.”

I parked where she indicated, next to one of several limos already gathered. Another chauffeur headed into the back of the house, so I followed him. There were about eight of us in the brightly lit kitchen dodging the caterers. I was the only female in the group. I guess the guys figured I was with the caterers because they left me to myself at first. Then one noticed that I wasn’t carrying trays and ambled over.

He was about my height, attractive, with dark hair and a roundish face aged slightly with a thick mustache. He wore a black vest over a white shirt with a black tie and black pants.

“Hi. You’re new,” he said with an obvious sort of grin.

I smiled politely anyway.

“I’m Steve Lansky,” he continued. “I drive for Ramona Bistler.”

“You do?” My interest picked up a lot. “No kidding.”

“No kidding. The boss told me I didn’t have to wait. She’ll probably be going home with some stud. I just stopped in to say hi to the guys. Looks like this is my lucky night.”

“Maybe.” I hesitated. On one hand, I wanted to keep his interest and possibly find something out about Ramona Bistler. On the other hand…

“Do you have to wait?” Lansky asked with a leer.

“Well, I… I might be able to get out of it. How do I get to the party?”

“Follow the trays, sweetheart. Tell you what, we’ll go dancing, then…” He smirked. “We’ll see what comes up.”

“I’ll go check.”

I hurried after a tray laden young woman down a hall to a packed living room. Standing in the doorway, I began the first movement of Symphony Number Forty. It took a minute, but Mrs. Sperling appeared at my side.

“You’re working very fast,” she said softly.

“So’s Bistler’s chauffeur. He wants me to go dancing with him.”

“Convenient.”

“It was his idea, I promise.”

“I’m sure it was. It sounds like a golden opportunity.”

“For information, yes.”

“Not to your liking?”

“He thinks he’s hot stuff.”

“Don’t sacrifice yourself, dear.”

“So I put up with the jerk for an hour or so. I’ll ditch him fast enough. In the meantime, I’ll pump him for what he knows.”

“It’s not part of your job description.”

“Maybe not, but I want to know.”

“Good for you. Please wait here a minute.”

She listened for a moment, then walked off across the room. I wondered where Eleanor was. The crowd shifted and I saw her tail listlessly thumping the floor from behind a sofa. Mrs. Sperling talked with Mrs. Delgado who nodded vigorously. Mrs. Sperling then threaded her way through the people back to me.

“The Delgados will give me a ride home,” she said. “Go to your interrogation with my blessing and ditch the clod the moment you get a chance. I don’t want you endangering yourself.”

“I won’t. Thanks.”

“Oh, Delilah!” oozed an older woman as she slid up. Her skin was tan and freshly lifted, with perfect make-up and hair. “Darling, how did you get over here?”

“I walked,” Mrs. Sperling answered with irritated politeness.

“But how?”

“I stood and put one foot in front of the other. The same way you do.”

“But there are so many people here. It must have been positively terrifying.”

“Not in the least.”

“Here, darling, let me help you back to the couch.”

“I’d really rather mingle, thank you.” Mrs. Sperling moved off into the swarm. If she bumped into anybody it was because the room was so crowded everyone was bumping into everyone else.

Taking a deep breath, I returned to my waiting swain. It took a little doing, but I convinced him that I really had to return the limo to Mrs. Sperling’s house. I also insisted on driving.

“I know a really hot spot in Westwood,” I said when we were finally on our way in my Altima.

“Great.”

“So how come your boss doesn’t care where you leave her car?”

“Cause she’s not going home in it. She don’t care about nothing but getting laid and getting a good settlement from her husband. Or she cared about the settlement. Looks like she’s getting the whole pile now.”

“Yeah. She sure is lucky.”

“She’d better watch her step. His family is supposed to contest the will. It’s like before she had to be careful so no one caught her sleeping around so she could get plenty of alimony. If she wants that money, she’s going to have to convince some judge she’s a grieving, faithful widow.”

“I hear she’s not.”

“You think your boss is weird. Mine is completely bananas. She’s taken up joy riding lately. In fact, night before last she took off again. I know cause the gas tank was full the next morning.”

“Full?”

“Yeah. She’s trying to cover it up now. The tank was half empty when I left it that day. The next morning it’s full. You try to tell me she didn’t run it down driving all over kingdom come, then filled it up so I wouldn’t think she’d been out.”

“Did you hear the car running at all?”

“Nah. I was out all night. I tell you, the broad is crazy. Why should I care if she goes driving?”

“Beats me,” I replied. He wouldn’t care, all right. But she might, if she needed an alibi, and a car running in a garage does empty the tank.

I parked in a parking structure about a block from the disco, after getting Lansky to cough up the parking fee. It was a rotten move, considering what I’d just gotten, and what my intentions were. But Lansky got on my nerves.

I walked quickly to the disco. Lansky kept up but was a little winded when we reached the door. I got my hand stamped and went in with Lansky right there.

The music was good and loud and drowned him out. The generous dance floor was across from the bar, and busy but not overcrowded. Tables were scattered about and mostly filled. Single men and women stood about watching and plotting. I had to complete a circuit of the room to find my friends.

There were five of them, including a couple I didn’t know very well. Their names were Jan and Lee. Tina Paulson, my best friend, stood when she saw me. Tina’s a black woman with a real exotic look that reminds me of Sade, only Tina’s prettier. With her was her fiance, Earl Cartwell, and a mutual friend, Mickey Dooley. Mickey has bright red hair and an outrageous personality. Besides dancing, Mickey is trying to break in as a stand-up comic. Tina’s a dancer, like me, and Earl is a doctor. He was a second-year resident at U.C.L.A. Earl looks like a basketball player with a tall-skinny figure and close-cropped hair.

I said hello all around as best I could and didn’t introduce Lansky. The set up was just perfect. Mickey and I are old buddies. Mickey threw his arm around me and flagged down the cocktail waitress.

“Bring my lady here a gin and tonic,” he yelled.

“Mickey, I’m driving!” I yelled back.

“So have some potato skins first. Here!” Mickey crammed a sour cream filled skin into my mouth. I laughed and tried not to get it all over my skirt. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Lansky sulkily pull up a chair and sit down. The next thing I knew, Mickey had pulled me onto the floor and we were off.

I met Mickey in a partnering class in college. We danced together the second day and it was like we’d always been partners. Something just clicks when Mickey and I dance together. It took a year of dating to find out our partnership was limited to the dance floor. But we’re still good friends, and we love to go dancing.

I hoped that when Lansky saw me and Mickey he’d throw in the towel. No such luck. I have to give the guy some credit for persistence. He even managed to get something of a conversation going with Earl.

Unfortunately, I had to share Mickey. Earl dances, but he’s such a klutz Tina goes crazy if she doesn’t get to dance with Mickey every so often. I decided to rest.

“So why don’t we blow this joint?” Lansky said in my ear.

I noticed he was drinking from my gin and tonic.

“Why?” I asked. “I’m having a blast.”

“What about something coming up?”

“The only thing coming up around here is the dance contest, and Mickey and I are going to win it.”

“But you came here with me.”

“Lansky, face it. This relationship is going nowhere. You’re an okay guy, but you’re not my type. It was a nice try. I appreciate it.”

Lansky grumbled something and left. Tina came up and dared me to go to the bathroom with her. Laughing, I went.

Tina wanted to know who Lansky was, so I told her as she washed her hands. That led to Mrs. Sperling’s generous arrangement with my career.

“You lucked out,” said Tina. She turned off the water.

“You’re telling me.”

“But this murder thing. Is she a cop?”

“Well, a private eye.”

Tina looked around for a towel. “No shit.”

“By all accounts, she’s pretty good at it.”

“Sounds kind of creepy to me.”

“Hey, the bucks are coming in, and I’m not living at home. I couldn’t ask for more.”

“Yes, you could.” She shook droplets of water all over me. “How about a leading role in a major motion picture starring also your best friend?”

“And how about an Oscar on top of that?”

“How about several million dollars?”

“How about numberless gorgeous men falling at my feet?”

“How about… Oh, damn! You topped me again.”

I pushed her out of the restroom.

Mickey and I won the dance contest, but I have to admit it was close. I knew the other couple were pros also. I’d seen them at auditions. I offered Mickey the prize money since I was working.

“No, my dear,” he replied. “We’ll split as usual. I just signed a contract with a lovely little club down in Hollywood. It’s called the Laugh Factory.”

“Mickey! That’s wonderful!” I screamed and threw my arms around him.

“It seems you’ve heard of it. I’ll only be there for three weeks. But the pay should feed me for somewhat longer. I’ve got some residuals, too, so I’m in the black for the time being.”

We all danced a while longer then mutually decided to call it a night. Earl and Tina left first with Jan and Lee. Mickey and I did one more song, then Mickey insisted on walking me back to my car.

It was definitely the element of surprise that knocked Mickey over. Neither of us could figure out quite what happened. We were almost to my car on the top floor of the parking structure when all of a sudden Mickey landed on his backside and my head was in a hammerlock. Lansky’s voice slurred as he cursed me.

“What’s Sperling got on me?” he growled. “Huh? What’s she got?”

He choked me so badly I couldn’t speak. Then I fell under two bodies, each scrambling for the other. Groaning, I managed to crawl out from under Lansky and Mickey.

They rolled together. Mickey showed on top and pulled back for a punch. It landed on Lansky’s jaw but didn’t do much. Lansky latched onto Mickey’s throat. Mickey broke the hold but fell backward. Lansky popped up. Mickey dodged just in time and staggered to his feet. So did Lansky.

The two men gasped as they glared at each other. Lansky danced in and swung first. It connected with Mickey’s eye. He faded back as Lansky came in again, this time to the stomach. Mickey got in a punch to Lansky’s nose. Lansky landed two more in Mickey’s stomach. Mickey stepped back and bumped into the retaining wall. Lansky grinned. His hands shot out and grabbed Mickey by the throat. Mickey grabbed on for dear life.

I watched in horror. At first, I couldn’t even yell, I was so scared. Lansky started pushing Mickey over the wall. That’s when I got angry. I ran over and pounded on Lansky’s back. Mickey broke his grasp and pounded on Lansky’s front. Lansky sagged to the ground.

“Oh no.” I started crying. “Is he still alive?”

Mickey checked him. “Oh, yeah. He’ll be sore in the morning but fine.”

“Are you okay?”

We staggered over to my car.

“I’m fine.” Mickey slid on his best Irish brogue. “I’m an Irishman. I love a good fight.”

“Mickey, that’s not funny. And you’re half Swedish. Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yes, I’m fine.” He held me by my shoulders and looked into my eyes. “I relaxed with the punches and he didn’t hurt me.”

“Okay.”

I sniffed again and Mickey kissed me. It was one of those wonderful, full kisses that had kept us dating for a year. We both sighed as we came apart.

“It’s mighty tempting,” Mickey said. “We wouldn’t last five minutes, but it’s mighty tempting.”

“You think..? No. No way. I don’t want to get messed up in that again. What are we going to do about him?”

“Leave him. You gonna come see me at the Laugh Factory?”

“With as many friends as I can drag down there.”

“Great. I’ll call you.”

“Or I’ll call you. As soon as the next dance contest comes up.”

“Right.” He took my keys and opened my car door for me. “There you are, my lady.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

He shut the door for me, then waited while I coaxed the Altima’s engine into starting. We waved as I drove off.

 

 

Anne Louise Bannon

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