“Hm. It would have been better exercise, too.”
“There’s one!” I stepped on the accelerator. I hit the brakes as a little red Mercedes cut in front of me and grabbed the spot. “Jackass!”
“It’s a good thing we have seat belts.”
“Hang on. I just spotted another one, and I’ll be darned if I’m going to lose it.”
“Banzai,” remarked Mrs. Sperling passively. “Is it really worth wrecking the car just for a parking place?”
“No. But the other drivers don’t have to know I feel that way. There are some things you just have to bluff your way through.” I looked over my shoulder as I backed in. I shifted into drive, pulled forward a little, and checked my position. “I’ll be. A perfect two-point landing. Think we can stay here a while, Mrs. Sperling? I want to enjoy this.”
“I doubt it. But fear not. I’m sure as time marches on, this sort of thing will be a more and more frequent occurrence. On to the gallery.”
I was a little surprised to see it open, and nervous. Hendricks was violent and not above dirty tricks. I remembered what Michaelson had said about Hoffman’s body and shuddered. Mrs. Sperling did not seem in the least perturbed and walked in without hesitation.
As usual, she knew what she was doing. Another milder man was behind the desk, talking on the phone. He was average size with brown wavy hair. Another woman browsed. The man hung up the phone and approached her, speaking very softly. She smiled and shook her head.
“I’m just looking, thank you.”
The man approached us.
“May I help you, ladies?” he almost whispered.
“I believe so,” answered Mrs. Sperling. “What is your name?”
“Bob Dorsett.” He accented the last syllable.
“Isn’t this studio owned by Edgar Hendricks?”
“Yes, but he isn’t in today. I’m his associate, and I can handle anything he would have.”
“I take it, you often act in his stead.”
“I have to. Ed’s not always here.”
“He was here yesterday.”
“Not all day. He left around three thirty. It was something important. He was in a pretty big rush.”
“As if he was scared?”
“Ed’s always scared.”
“He may have good reason this time. Do you know why he isn’t here today?”
“He’s out of town.”
“Was this a planned trip?”
“No. He does that sometimes. Just decides to take off. He called me last night, in the middle of the night, and said he was going, the keys to the gallery were in my mailbox, and they were.”
“Did he say where he was going?”
“That’s funny. He didn’t. He usually does. I wonder if he’s in some sort of trouble.”
“He is. He’s wanted on assault charges by the Los Angeles police. He attacked Miss Brechter, here, last night, and later assaulted her friend when he came to her rescue.”
“Oh, geez. Damn that Ed. He has one hell of a short fuse. He knows art, but if you ask me, he isn’t all there. He drives people out of here ’cause he thinks he’s the only person who knows anything. The only reason this place is still on its feet is because he isn’t always here, and because he does know his art.” Dorsett sighed. “It’s too bad, too. The guy can’t run a business worth beans. Never checks up on his back orders, can’t get the billing straight. What’s a guy like me to do?”
“Make up for his inefficiencies?” Mrs. Sperling smiled.
“Only when he’s not here. If Ed thought I didn’t think he knew what he was doing, he’d have my head on a plate, and then fire me. That guy has got a temper. You should have seen what he did with this bronze we had. Some customer said it was a piece of… Well, he wasn’t very nice about it. Ed got mad. Real mad. Picked up the bronze and heaved into a Niedeman serigraph. Put a dent in the wall, he threw it so hard. The Niedeman was ruined. It was one of the signed ones, too.” Dorsett shook his head. “Ed can’t afford losses like that. If things don’t get better this Christmas, we’re going under, and that’s a fact. Ed’s broke. He won’t believe it. He thinks the bank guys that are after him are just out to get him for personal reasons.”
“So he needs money.”
“He needs it bad.”
Mrs. Sperling nodded. “He wasn’t too fond of the Stein gallery, was he?”
“He hated Josh Stein’s guts. Josh knew what he was doing, even if he wasn’t a big party type. And in Ed’s defense, I gotta admit, Josh could be a real stuck up pain in the ass. But the big thing Ed had against him was that Josh’s gallery was doing better than his. Josh couldn’t pick his art nearly as well, but he sold a lot more. Ed couldn’t stand that.”
“Given what I know of his personality, I can imagine he found it a bitter pill to swallow.”
“Ma’am, can I tell you a secret?” Dorsett’s soft voice sank even lower. I had to really strain just to hear. “Last week, I heard Ed say he had plans for Josh’s gallery. He wouldn’t say what they were, but he gets this real sneaky grin on his face. The kind I know means trouble. The thing that scares me, the next day they find Josh dead. Somebody knocked him on the noggin and left him in a garage with the motor running. I asked Ed where he was that night. He wouldn’t say. He just laughed.”
“Interesting. Still, it’s not completely conclusive, as I’m sure you’re aware, Mr. Dorsett. Ergo, Mr. Hendricks’ continued liberty. Are you aware of the rumors that Mr. Stein was counterfeiting?”
“Those have been circulating for the past year and a half.”
“Anything in them?”
“No way. Ed started them, trying to do in Josh’s business. Nobody believed them. Josh was too straight. And several people had had their stuff authenticated. It was genuine. Besides, somebody would have to be a real dope to try and sell forgeries out of his own gallery. A bad reputation can kill you in this business.”
“Which is precisely why Mr. Hendricks started the rumors, I’m sure.” Mrs. Sperling thought for a long moment. “You say the business has been doing poorly. Might I and my associate look at the books?”
Dorsett started. “Why? You’re not a cop. You can’t be.”
“No, I’m a private investigator. Mr. Hendricks may have been the innocent victim of a thief. You made a comment earlier about back orders. If your books reveal what I think they will, it may help explain some things. Would you be so kind?”
“I-I don’t know. If Ed finds out, he’ll kill me.”
“That is, unfortunately, possible. However, I seriously doubt he’ll be back today. I won’t tell him, and my associate surely will not. That leaves only you to say anything. Can you be trusted to keep quiet about it?”
“How crazy do you think I am? Look, ma’am, books are something private. You just don’t show them to every person that comes through that door.”
“I am not every person. Is there by any chance some illegal activity recorded in those books that you do not want me to find?”
“No! No way.”
“Then I do not understand your hesitation in allowing me to go over them.”
“It’s the principle of the thing, ma’am. You’re in here trying to find out about Ed. I’ve already told you more than I should have. But people talk, and in the long run, it’s my word against yours, and your associate’s. But she’s biased for you, so I figure I’m not taking too many chances. The books are written and legal.”
“And also destroyable.”
“Which would look pretty funny, and would get me into all sorts of trouble. Sorry, ma’am, that’s too much sticking my neck out.”
Mrs. Sperling sighed. “I understand. However, if you don’t show them to me now, I shall be forced to have a member of the Beverly Hills police obtain a search warrant for them. Either way, I will know what is in those books. I would appreciate it if I could look at them now, thus saving me a great deal of time, and the taxpayers of this community some money. I might also add, a search warrant would be public, and would certainly arouse Mr. Hendricks.”
Dorsett weighed this out. After a minute, he walked over to the desk and pressed a few keys on the computer’s keyboard.
“It’s all yours,” he said with the resignation of a reluctant Christian facing the lions.
Eleanor led Mrs. Sperling over, and I followed. The store’s spreadsheet was on the screen.
“Well,” I said, scrolling through the page. “It looks like they were making ends meet until July. Before that, they’re okay. There seems to be an increasing back order cost, though, going back, geez, almost a year.”
“We’ve had tons of them,” sighed Dorsett. “Mostly last spring. None of the high ticket items, just prints, you know, serigraphs and lithos. But they added up. Ed wouldn’t go after the studios. He told me to wait, and he’d take care of it. But he never did. Ed must have talked to them eventually, cause we’ve been getting full orders since July for the most part. But it was around then that the back orders really began to hurt. Summer’s kind of slow for us.”
“Who had access to the prints when they came in?”
“No one, except me and Ed.”
“Are you sure? There were no other employees at the time?”
“No. It’s always just been me and Ed.”
“That is awkward. Perhaps if we could look at the packing slips.”
“They’re in the back order file with all the others.”
I dug them out. It was a thick file. “Okay, here they are. Let me get this paper clip off. The received count is written in red ballpoint ink. The back order is noted in the next column, in black ballpoint ink, and in a different hand than the received. Looks like studio shipping people are not real well educated, which would account for the mistakes.”
“It could,” agreed Mrs. Sperling. “Well, Mr. Dorsett, I regret that we’ve caused you any discomfort. But I must thank you for your kindness. This does shed some light on a very intriguing problem. We’ll be off, now. Thanks again.”
She sighed once we were on the street. I frowned.
“I thought you said we didn’t have enough evidence for a search warrant,” I said.
“Well, as you said earlier, there are some things you just have to bluff your way through.” She shook her head. “It’s hard to imagine how people can be so stupid at times.”
“Those back orders are Hoffman’s hot prints, you think?”
“I’d be fairly positive, except for one thing. How on earth did he get a hold of them?”
“The conspiracy theory again.”
“Yes. But who is conspiring with whom? And how does all this fit in with Mr. Stein’s murder?”
“Could it have been a personal thing all along, and Hoffman just happened to be mixed up in it?” I looked out at the traffic.
“That would seem rather likely, given Ms. Bistler and Mr. Hendricks. Yet, they are both independent of each other. They both made up separate lies. They both had opportunity, and they both have separate, though powerful motives.”
“Where was Bistler when Hoffman was killed?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Mrs. Sperling said with a shrug. “She didn’t know him. You must have noticed how much calmer she became when I asked about him.”
“But you said you thought Hoffman was connected to the counterfeiting.”
“He probably was. I’m wondering if we aren’t dealing with two separate, but related crimes here. The murder could indeed have a personal motive.”
“You know. It now strikes me that that Grisom guy had a great deal of venom for Ramona Bistler.”
“Does he fit our description?”
I closed my eyes briefly. “Come to think of it, he does.”
“Which only stops us from eliminating him. But why kill Mr. Stein? It was Ms. Bistler he didn’t care for.”
“Maybe he had something against Stein that he didn’t tell us, like Stein caught him embezzling. Grisom conked Stein on the head, then left him in a garage, waited a while, then returned him to the studio, using Stein’s keys. And because he doesn’t like Bistler, he tries to push us in her direction. In the meantime, he’s fixing the books so if Bistler doesn’t get nailed for it, she won’t know what happened to the money.”
“Perhaps the most plausible scenario that we’ve stumbled across. Unfortunately, it’s mere speculation without a shred of evidence. We shall have to examine Mr. Grisom more thoroughly.” Mrs. Sperling paused as Eleanor held her back from stepping into the street.
“I’ve got an idea about how to see if he has an alibi for last Wednesday night. I’ll pretend I’m a survey taker.” I gently tagged Mrs. Sperling’s elbow as the pedestrian light turned green.
“He may not answer you. There are those people who do not like being surveyed, and they rarely have anything to hide.”
“It’s worth a try.”
“Yes. But I would recommend waiting until tomorrow at the soonest. He might think it suspicious that someone is so interested in his whereabouts on the night of the murder so soon after we were there. In the meantime, we’d best also look for a connection between Mr. Hoffman and Mr. Hendricks. Wait. It just now occurs to me that the morning we found Mr. Stein, Mr. Hoffman mentioned the rumors surrounding the counterfeits. He must have been in contact with Mr. Hendricks somewhere along the line. But where?”
I shrugged. “Hiding in the back alley? Who knows? I wonder where we look.”
“Probably with Mr. Hoffman’s associates. They might be less cautious than Mr. Hendricks, or easier to confuse.”
“You know, Hendricks was not at the gallery when Hoffman was killed. And that Dorsett guy says Hendricks was prone to violence.”
“As you know well from personal experience. That might explain Mr. Hoffman’s death, but it doesn’t answer the question of Mr. Stein’s.”
“Two separate crimes. Grisom nailed Stein. Hendricks nailed Hoffman.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps. We should still be open to a connection between the two. It could solve the whole puzzle. At the same time, we must not be so concerned with the single crime theory that we unnecessarily obfuscate the matter and thus overlook the solutions to two crimes.”
“I stand warned. Where now?” Having reached the car, I clicked the lock open and opened the back passenger door for Eleanor.
“Let us examine Mr. Hoffman’s home.”
“Will we be able to get in?”
“Not without my letter of reference from Chief Matthews. However, we may be able to gather some information from the outside of the building. And Mrs. Parrish might be able to tell us something.”
“Mr. Hoffman’s landlady.” Mrs. Sperling got into the front seat.
It turned out that Mrs. Parish wasn’t in when we got there. The building was tan, two storied, with an archway in the middle leading to the apartments built around a courtyard with a pool. It was located off Sunset. The neighborhood was not very well kept up. Bits of paper lay in the gutters and cars sat on the small lawns in front of the apartment buildings. The pool in Hoffman’s complex was empty except for a black puddle with yellowed newspaper and a rusty tricycle sticking up out of it.
Mrs. Sperling stayed out on the front walk, while I walked around to the side of the building.
“It’s the same tan stucco as the front,” I called back to her. “There are two rows of three, four, five windows. One row on top for the second story, and then the first story row pretty much under them. All of the first story windows have black wrought iron bars on them. There’s maybe six feet between this building and the one next to it.” I came back out to the walk. “You know, there isn’t any fire escape on that wall. And if Hoffman’s apartment is right above the landlady’s, it’d have to open out there.”
“When you went into the courtyard, did you see a door with a police seal on it?”
“I couldn’t tell from the angle I was at. A couple mean looking guys came out of a ground floor apartment, and they were giving me some awful funny looks, so I thought it better to depart.”
“A wise decision. This is one area where I do think it best to leave the questioning to the Hollywood division police.”
“Still, that fire escape…”
“The sergeant was probably referring to a special window dedicated to that purpose.”
“Now I know what you mean. It must have been pretty easy to get down, too, with those buildings so close together.”
A car pulled up behind Mrs. Sperling. It was an older Chevy in bad shape, with peeling dark blue paint and numerous dents. A tired looking Black woman got out, carrying a baby and a sack of groceries. She eyed us hostily.
“Who are you folks?” she asked.
“I am Mrs. Delilah Sperling. Do you live in this building behind me?”
“I’m the manager.”
“Then you are Mrs. Bedeliah Parrish.”
“Yes. What you want?”
“Some information regarding the trouble here yesterday.”
“You from the insurance?” She almost smiled.
Mrs. Sperling caught the vocal cue. “I understand nothing was actually stolen.”
“That don’t mean nothing. That damn cop bust my door down. That’s why I called you guys. They said it was covered and it’s in my policy in black and white.”
“I’m sure it is, Mrs. Parrish. Someone will be out soon to appraise the damage. I’m investigating a related matter. Could you tell me in your own words what happened yesterday afternoon?”
“Oh, that’s simple. I was coming home from the market when I see that White cop knocking on Hoffman’s door. He look at me, and made the ugliest face, and bust the door in.”
“How did you see this when my associate just now tried to get a view of Hoffman’s door from the archway there and couldn’t see even the police seal?”
“I was coming from the other side where the garages are.”
“That would explain it. What did you do when you saw the officer break the door?”
“I didn’t see that exactly. I just saw him go in. Later, I knowed he busted it. I went into my apartment and heard the noise, but I didn’t pay it no mind cause Hoffman he was always making noise. Then the White cop, he come down and ask me to keep watch. Says there was burglars in Hoffman’s place. I don’t mind saying that scared me some, ‘specially when the cop says they killed Hoffman.”
“You haven’t had much trouble here?”
“Honey, we always got trouble. But this was the first time someone got killed in my building.”
“Well, thank you very much, Mrs. Parrish. I expect that covers it nicely. You’ve been most kind.”
“Thank you.” Mrs. Parrish moved into the building with half an eye on us.
I pulled out of there and headed for home.