mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Four

I left the house the next morning with an apple and a piece of toast in hand. All was silent. I got back at ten-thirty and didn’t see anyone on the way to the shower. I was out and dressed by eleven. Wondering what to do, I wandered into the living room, then the kitchen.

Mrs. Sperling was enjoying either a late breakfast or an early lunch. Mrs. Osgood took something sweet and spicy smelling from the oven.

“Good morning, Donna,” said Mrs. Sperling without turning to me. “Did your class go well?”

“Pretty good. I’m a little stiff. I haven’t worked out in three days.”

“Do you like ginger snaps?” Mrs. Osgood asked, smiling.

“Sure,” I replied.

“Please sit down and join me,” said Mrs. Sperling. “You’re probably quite hungry.”

“Based on what clues?” I teased, sitting down.

“You were just strenuously exercising, which also means you ate very little before your class if anything at all.” With only one false start, she located an empty plate on the table and filled it. “We’re indulging in red meat for brunch today. Steak and scrambled eggs with mushroom sauce, grilled potatoes, and green peas. Mrs. Osgood takes very good care of us and makes sure we get the really fattening stuff early in the day, so we can work it off.”

“Thanks. Not so much, please. I’m not a heavy eater any time of the day.”

“Do you drink water or milk?” asked Mrs. Osgood, placing a glass and silver next to my hand.

“Milk’s fine. Thanks.”

“Ah, another fighter against the scourge of osteoporosis,” observed Mrs. Sperling.

“Not really,” I answered. “I just like milk. I’m glad you have low fat. I can’t stand milk you can see through.”

“Nor can I abide the taste of nonfat. I have tried and tried, and I still don’t like it.”

I chuckled in agreement. “So. What’s up today? You said you needed me at eleven.”

“I said that would be the earliest. There’s a young girl I’m tutoring at the Braille Institute. She called and said she was sick today and couldn’t make it. I suspect she hasn’t got her homework done again. But alas, I have no evidence. Nonetheless, it is a fortunate cancellation. We shall finish our meal at leisure, then call on Sergeant Michaelson.”

“Do you have an appointment?”

“No.”

“But what if he’s not there?”

“All the better. We shall be able to read the reports without his bias.”

Sergeant Michaelson was on his lunch break when we arrived at the Beverly Hills Police Station.

“Mrs. Sperling, those reports have not been released to the general public,” sighed a smallish clerk in a uniform. His nameplate said Bradley.

“Since when am I the general public?” Mrs. Sperling countered.

“I know, but…”

“Must I bother Chief Matthews?”

Bradley threw his arms in the air and searched through a file cabinet.

“You’re lucky he’s your cousin,” he said, handing her a file folder.

“I’m even luckier he owed me one.” Mrs. Sperling smiled and handed the file to me.

I waited until Bradley had left the room. “What did the chief owe you?”

“A major case, and his life. He wanted to give me a medal and the substantial reward that was being offered. I asked for free access to all Beverly Hills police reports, past, present and future, and got it. He suggested he would rue the day, but he has yet to. By the way, I am counting on your complete discretion.”

“Nary a word, ma’am.” I opened the file. “Let’s see. We’ve got photographs of the room. There’s some suitcases under the cot. I don’t think I mentioned that.”

“No. How interesting. Mr. Hoffman mentioned that Mr. Stein and his wife newly separated. I suspect Mr. Stein was living in his gallery. Were the contents inventoried?”

“Uh, yeah. Here they are. Twelve shirts, nine pairs of pants, thirty-one pairs of briefs…”

“Hm. Obsessive about clean underwear. Go on.”

“Twelve pairs of socks, four belts, eight sets of suspenders, seven tank tops, nine t-shirts, eight pairs of jeans…”

“How many suitcases were there?”

“Three. Um, two bathrobes, one pair of slippers, and eight pairs of shoes.”

“That’s everything?”

“Yeah. They didn’t list colors.”

“No pajamas.”

“Nope.”

“That’s interesting.”

“He probably slept in the raw,” I said and looked over the report again. “I didn’t see any toiletries listed either. There was some soap, toothpaste and a toothbrush in the bathroom, but nothing else. He should at least have shampoo and deodorant, more likely he’d have everything that Glen has spread out all over the bathroom.”

“Odd. Glen is an excellent housekeeper.”

“Not in the bathroom. It’s clean and all. There’s just lots of clutter.”

“Oh. As for the late Mr. Stein, I take it there is no shower in the gallery.”

“You take it correct.”

“Then no toiletries. I would venture to guess that Mr. Stein is a member of a gymnasium in the local area, and has a permanent locker there, and that is where his toiletries are.”

“Of course.”

“We should verify that. If the toiletries are indeed missing, that could be an important clue, and their actual location an even better one. What else does the report say?”

“It just describes the room, and our statements, and the conversation with Mr. Hoffman, and Bedelia Parrish, his landlady.”

“It’s early, yet, but there wouldn’t happen to be a coroner’s report, would there?”

“Yeah, here. He died between eight-thirty and ten o’clock. He received a blow on the head, in the back, close to the time of death. It was definitely carbon monoxide poisoning. The body had been moved since death. Stomach contents were potatoes, ketchup, mustard, pickles, reconstituted onions, hamburger, bread, cola.”

“Oh, the poor man! Fast food for a last meal.” Mrs. Sperling shuddered.

I grinned. “He’d eaten two to four hours before he died. He’d had at least one hernia operation, probably as a child, and apparently no other surgeries. There was a long scar on his leg, a cut sewn together, also fairly old. No signs of needle marks or other illegal drugs, beyond some scarring in the lungs typical of moderate marijuana use.”

“Has he been formally identified?”

“Yes, by his wife, Ramona Bistler.”

“Ramona Bistler? No wonder they were splitting.” Mrs. Sperling frowned. “That was a terribly catty thing to say. But unfortunately apt.”

“You know her?”

“Not well. A friend of a friend. I’ve met her at several parties. Her husband was never with her, nor did she tend towards fidelity, I’m sorry to say. I have eyewitnesses on that account.”

“Hm. Well, the lab report confirms everything else we know. Oh, there’s a note here that the print in the room is being authenticated.”

“And I just got a call before lunch that it’s genuine.” Sergeant Michaelson’s voice startled me. “Dear Mrs. Sperling, taking advantage of the Chief’s graciousness again, I see.”

“Blood tells, dear Sergeant.” Mrs. Sperling smiled primly.

“So what conclusions have you drawn?”

“None yet, except that Mr. Stein was slightly obsessive about underwear. You didn’t happen to go through it, did you?”

“As a matter of fact, I did. So?”

“Was it in good repair?”

“It all looked brand new to me. Come to think of it, I thought he’d been saving it over the years. It was a lot of underwear. But I didn’t see any signs of wear.”

“Ah. A very orderly, clean person, wouldn’t you say?”

“Yeah. His desk was in pretty good shape.”

“Then why was there bird seed all over the place?”

“That’s easy,” I put in. “Birds are a mess.”

“But all over the room?” Mrs. Sperling frowned. “Usually the mess is somewhat contained.”

I shrugged. “It blew around. My sister had birdseed all the way to the bathroom when she had a bird.”

“But is your sister neat and orderly? Mr. Stein was.” She thought about it, then brushed it off. “Well, that piece of the puzzle shall eventually fit. Is there anything else in the report, Donna?”

“Not that I can see.”

“Anything to add, Sergeant?”

“As a matter of fact, yes. A couple salespeople from two different shops in the neighborhood said that on Wednesday they saw Stein arguing with a customer. It was pretty loud, and a piece of pottery got broken. One of the witnesses identified the customer as Devon of Devonaire. Does that ring a bell?”

“No,” replied Mrs. Sperling.

“There’s a store on Melrose called Devonaire,” I said. “It’s women’s clothing.”

Michaelson shrugged. “I think somebody said the guy, is a clothing designer.”

“That’s very interesting,” Mrs. Sperling said. “We’ll have to talk to him about it.”

“That’s all I’ve got for you,” Sergeant Michaelson said.

“Fine. We shall vacate, then. Oh, one thing more, Sergeant. The officer patrolling the neighborhood of the gallery. Did he happen to note the presence of any cars in that alley that night?”

“Officer Willoughby was on duty and, uh, made no such notation.” Sergeant Michaelson shifted.

“You have reason to doubt the officer?” Mrs. Sperling had caught his unease also.

“Not per se. The local security patrol didn’t note any suspicious vehicles either. Willoughby just gives me a bad feeling is all.”

“I see. Perhaps we should press Officer Wiyybybyloughby on this matter. If you would be so good as to give me his address, I will do so.”

“I’ll go you one better. Here he is right now.”

Officer Willoughby was a fairly young man with blonde hair. Tall and slightly filled out, he was wearing a worn polo shirt and faded jeans. Sergeant Michaelson waved him into the detectives’ room.

“Yeah, Sergeant. What’s up?” Willoughby growled passively.

“This is Mrs. Delilah Sperling,” answered the sergeant. “She’s taken an interest in the Stein murder.”

“You’re off duty,” Mrs. Sperling observed.

“Uh, yeah.” Willoughby looked puzzled. I, too, wondered how Mrs. Sperling figured that one out.

“If I remember correctly, your shift should end at six thirty in the morning,” Mrs. Sperling said to the unasked question. “What brings you here at this time of day?”

“Got a friend on the cross-over shift. We’re gonna play racquetball when he gets off.”

“Ah. I see. I understand you were patrolling the alley and neighborhood around Mr. Stein’s gallery the night before last.”

“Sure.”

“And you did not notice any suspicious cars?”

“No.”

“None?”

“None.”

“Odd.”

“I don’t know what anyone else is saying, ma’am. But I did not see anything out of place in that alley all night.”

“Very well, then.” Mrs. Sperling rewarded him with a smile. She signaled me, and we bade good-bye to the two policemen and left the station.

We headed back to the gallery. Mrs. Sperling wanted to find out some more about Mr. Stein’s psychology. Most of the people in the neighboring stores knew him, but nobody knew him very well.

“He was one of those loner types,” sighed Geraldine, the owner of the clothes boutique next to the gallery. “He was real nice. And responsible, too. Always showed up at our merchants’ association meetings. On time, which is more than I can say. He always said hi when he saw me. But I can’t say I knew him. Hell, I didn’t even know he was married until I heard about the split.” She sniffed. “I’m gonna miss him. He was a real hot dresser. Really had style, not like some guys you see, all trendy and no panache. Or worse yet, complete rebellion. Poor Josh. He really knew how to dress.”

Geraldine was the most expansive on Mr. Josh Stein’s personality. Most of the other merchants muttered platitudes about Mr. Stein’s nice nature, and that was it. Until we met Mr. Leon Dresser.

He was one of the salespeople Sergeant Michaelson had mentioned. Dressed in a bright blue jumpsuit and beret, he was an average sized man with cropped blond hair, and earrings parading all along the edges of his ears.

“Oh, who knows what they were arguing about!” he gushed. “I certainly didn’t care. Devon is about as obnoxious as they come. He thinks he’s the only person with taste on the entire West Coast. Have you seen his stuff? I’ve seen better on the beds in the Sears catalog. Of course, I was surprised. Shocked, even. I mean Josh, well it took a lot to get him mad, if you know what I mean. But there they were, yelling at each other. Then the pottery went, I’m not sure how, and Josh lost it. That’s when I left. Seeing a man lose his temper like that is not a pretty sight, nor one for strangers.”

Mrs. Sperling agreed with a sigh.

“Kind of suspicious, huh?” I said as we walked to the gallery and the car.

“Not necessarily,” replied Mrs. Sperling. “We shall have to wait and see if the argument is truly significant. Eleanor, halt. This is the alley?”

“Yeah.”

“Anyplace near the gallery that a car could hide?”

“Not really. There’s a large metal trash bin two doors down. But that would only hide a small car, and from this end only. There’s a major cross street a block down.”

“The car could have come and gone between both patrols. It wouldn’t have needed to stay long.”

“Five minutes, max. So now what?”

“That’s a good question. I recommend home for the moment. We have to find where Mr. Stein’s gymnasium is. I’ve a feeling we shall have to find out from Ms. Ramona Bistler, and that will require strategy. Yes, home is definitely the place.”

“Right away, Mrs. Sperling.”

As I drove into the driveway, Glen pulled in behind us and whipped around to the other end of the drive. I let Mrs. Sperling out near the kitchen door, then garaged the DeVille. I had to chuckle as I looked at the driveway. At one end was the garage which sheltered Mrs. Sperling’s bright red V.W. convertible and her traditional black Cadillac limousine, in addition to the DeVille. Along the side of the garage were parked my Altima, Glen’s beat-up Toyota sedan, and a Triumph Spitfire that belonged to Mrs. Osgood. The three older cars looked as though they were huddling together, bemoaning their derelict appearances amongst so much wealth.

Inside, Glen tried to get information out of Mrs. Sperling.

“You mean you have no idea?” he groaned.

“I have some, but it’s much too early to form a hypothesis. There are many more facts to be gathered first.”

“Bitchen,” he sulked. Mrs. Sperling cleared her throat. “Oh, sorry. Nobody else thinks it’s a cuss word.”

“Nonetheless, it’s insulting to female dogs.”

“Yeah.” Glen sighed. “I guess what I really want to know is how am I going to get my real Niedeman?”

“That is something the lawyers will have to decide,” Mrs. Sperling replied. “I’d best warn you, you may not.”

Glen held back a barrage of profanities. “That’s all I need. I’m already out several hundred dollars, if I can even find one.”

“I’m sorry, Glen.” Mrs. Sperling was genuinely so. “But don’t panic yet. A lot depends on how involved Mr. Stein was in the counterfeiting business. If there are criminal charges against him, the court may put a lien on his estate. It might also see that you are recompensed. It all depends on how the questions are answered, and how you present your case.”

The doorbell rang and Glen hurried off to answer it. I followed Mrs. Sperling into the living room. Glen arrived with us.

“It’s Mrs. Delgado,” he said. “Are you receiving?”

Mrs. Sperling perked up. “Norma? Of course, I will. Show her in.”

Glen left.

“Um, should I excuse myself?” I asked.

“Not unless you want to.”

Mrs. Sperling turned to greet her guest. Norma Delgado was probably around Mrs. Sperling’s age, and easily as well kept up. Her black hair showed slivers of grey and was drawn into a neat bun at the back of her neck. She was shorter and rounder than Mrs. Sperling. Her shirtwaist dress was a polished cotton with the kind of detailed tailoring that meant money.

“Delilah, I just happened to be in the neighborhood, and I thought I’d take a chance and see if you were in,” she said with sincere warmth. Just a hint of an accent belied her Hispanic ancestry.

“We’re fortunate, then,” replied Mrs. Sperling. “I just got back. Please have a seat.”

“Thank you.” Mrs. Delgado smiled at me. “Is this a new friend or employee?”

“Oh, this is Donna Brechter, my new chauffeur. Donna, this is Mrs. Norma Delgado.”

“Pleased to meet you,” I replied with a quick nod.

“Go ahead and sit down, Donna,” Mrs. Sperling directed.

I sat down on the edge of the sofa.

“What happened to Jimmy?” Mrs. Delgado asked.

“He sold too many books,” said Mrs. Sperling. “His publisher sent him on a publicity tour, and he had to leave before I could get another chauffeur. He felt very bad about it, in fact, I had quite a time convincing him he should go. I survived with taxis in the meantime, and Glen, when he wasn’t in class. But now I have Donna, and she’s been most satisfactory.”

“Thanks,” I muttered and blushed.

“Good.” Mrs. Delgado smiled again. “Actually, I was going to call you. Have you heard about Ramona Bistler’s husband?”

“Oh, yes.” A mischievous smile crept onto Mrs. Sperling’s lips.

“Oh, no. When I heard he’d been murdered, I had this strange feeling you’d be up to your elbows in it, or about to be.” Mrs. Delgado looked Mrs. Sperling over. “Well, am I wrong?”

“Very right, I’m afraid. We found the body.”

“And have been investigating ever since. Then maybe you will be interested. Alisa Montrose is having a party tonight, after the viewing.”

“I’m not sure…”

“I know Alisa is unbearable, and frankly, I don’t blame you. But the party is for Ramona, to cheer her up, not that… Oh dear, I can’t help it. Not that Ramona needs it.”

Mrs. Sperling sighed. “I’m afraid Ramona does ask for a certain amount of talk behind her back.”

“I know. But I hate being catty. It’s bad enough having to be pleasant to people like Alisa Montrose. I don’t want to be like her. I’m serious. If it weren’t for Mario depending on her vote, and everyone else’s, I’d make it a point to avoid her.”

“Such is the burden of a politician’s wife. And how is the judge?”

“Working like a dog, as usual. He’s beginning to worry about being re-elected. Then there’s all the work he has to do as his job. I say he’s crazy, but he loves it, so I’m happy for him. Fortunately, my business keeps me occupied when I want to be. Oh, Mario said to invite you to dinner next week. He wants to talk to somebody without campaigning.”

“Certainly. Is Friday good?”

“Perfect. As for tonight, the viewing is from six to eight, party from eight-thirty to whenever. I don’t mean to scare you off, but Alisa specifically asked me to invite you. I think it’s ghoulish curiosity. Still, I thought that if you were looking into the matter, it would provide you with an opportunity to talk to Ramona.”

“It would indeed.” Mrs. Sperling lapsed into a brief daze. She snapped out of it quickly. “I suppose I shall suffer through it. I take it you’ll be there also?”

“Of course. I’m going to be partying from now until the election next June. I’ve got to do my bit to keep Mario on his bench.”

“Let me know what parties you’ll be going to, and I’ll try and fit a few into my schedule.”

“Delilah, you are a doll.” Mrs. Delgado got up. “Masochistic, but a doll. I’m going to hurry on now. I’ll see you tonight. Don’t get up. I’ll see myself out.”

“Donna,” Mrs. Sperling said when we were alone. “I don’t think I’ll be needing you for the rest of the afternoon. But have the limo ready at eight-fifteen.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“Did you have plans for tonight?”

“Strictly tentative.”

“Well, unless they’re early, don’t cancel them. I doubt I’ll be late.”

“You don’t have to do that. I don’t mind working.”

“I’m sure you don’t, and normally I wouldn’t. But I seriously doubt I’m going to be spending much time at Alisa Montrose’s.”

 

Anne Louise Bannon

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