mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Nine

Back at the house, I hung up the phone and gazed at Mrs. Sperling thoughtfully. She worked quietly on a crewel sampler. We’d just finished dinner, and were relaxing in the living room.

“That was Shelley Carson just now,” I told Mrs. Sperling. “She says she’ll take me on, and is sending me out tomorrow on an audition.”

“How nice,” Mrs. Sperling said innocently.

“Funny. It just happens to be for a video directed by Phillip DuPre.”

“Are you implying something?”

“I don’t know.” I sunk into the sofa. “I feel like I’m being set up.”

Mrs. Sperling chuckled. “Assuming you are, it’s not the sort of set up I’d complain about if I were you.”

“I suppose. It doesn’t seem fair to the other dancers, though. And I can’t help wondering if there isn’t supposed to be some sort of payback if you know what I mean.”

“Your career is in no position for you to be worrying about being fair to other dancers, my dear. Furthermore, Phillip is perfectly capable of keeping his personal and professional biases separate. As for the payback, don’t even think of it. Phillip was well raised in a good home, and it shows.”

“Hmm.” I thought for a few minutes. “You wouldn’t happen to know if, uh, Mr. DuPre has a girlfriend?”

Mrs. Sperling laughed. “Donna, I’m afraid you’re on your own as far as that’s concerned. I refuse to meddle.” She paused. “But Phillip is not seeing anyone at the moment.”

“Well, it’s not going to make any difference. Like I’m really going to say anything.”

“It might not be a bad idea.” She absorbed herself in her stitchery.

“Yeah. Right.” I got up and stretched. “I’m just a peon dancer hyphen chauffeur. He sure is gorgeous, though.”

And nice, with no ego. It was hopeless. So I went to bed.

The next morning, I made a quick run past the Beverly Hills police station before class. I worked out extra hard, so I was dragging a little when I made it back to the house. Mrs. Sperling had me join her for brunch, poached eggs with Benedictine sauce, fresh steamed broccoli and fresh fruit with cream.

“You sound worn out.” Mrs. Sperling smiled softly at me.

“I am a little. I got your notes in, before class even. That Willoughby guy said he’d bring them to Michaelson.”

“Thank you. Speaking of that, I don’t believe you ever told me the results of your adventure Monday night.”

“Oh, that.” I recounted my conversation with the bartender at Hennessey’s. “I also forgot to tell you I dropped by the police station the next morning. They were waiting for me. It turns out Fred Gonzagos did a small stretch for forgery with intent to fraud six years back. He got out three years ago and has supposedly stayed clean since. More like he hasn’t gotten caught. They listed an Anita Llanez as his sister. I wrote the address down somewhere.” I dug through my dance bag. “Here it is. It’s in Montebello.”

“Quite a distance. I’ll try to contact her by phone. While I do, why don’t you rest a little? I assume you want to be fresh for your audition this afternoon.”

“Yeah.” I sighed and sat back in my chair.

“Feeling nervous?” Her smile was a little sly.

“It’s an audition. Of course, I’m nervous. I don’t know. It just feels strange, is all. But like you say, I’m in no position to complain.”

She nodded.

“Mrs. Sperling, can I ask you a question?”

“Of course.”

“Why are you helping me develop a career that is going to cause me to leave you?”

She hesitated. “Because of how hard I fought to realize my dream of becoming a detective. I fought tooth and nail to get the state to let me test for my investigator’s license. Almost took them to court. And it was years before anyone gave me any credit for my skills. It was so painful to know how good I was, and yet not be taken seriously because I was supposedly handicapped. For similar reasons, it’s much the same for most young artists. You know you’re a good dancer and actress, but no one recognizes it, and no one will take you seriously until you make tremendous amounts of money. Even then some people won’t. Poor Jimmy felt so bad because his family considered his writing a nice hobby until his first book hit the Bestseller list. It’s a wonderful book, and it had gotten twenty-eight rejection slips before I talked to a friend of my father’s who’s a literary agent. My detecting was a nice hobby, also, and nobody would believe that I could be any good at it. Finally, my father convinced a friend of his that I might be able to tell whether or not a burglary the police considered just a standard break-in was indeed more than it seemed. It was a murder attempt based on an old grudge that I was able to ferret out. I saved that friend’s life. He thanked me, and told me he would tell his friends about me on one condition.”

“What was that?”

“That I promise that if I ever came across another struggling dreamer, I would help him or her achieve that dream. You see, someone had done the same for him, and made him make the same promise. It was such a noble goal, he thought it best to carry it on. And I have.”

“I think I will, too. If I get anywhere. There aren’t enough nice people in the world.”

“Maybe we can change that.”

We were on the road by noon. Our first stop was the security company. The guard we wanted was still out sick. The supervisor did let us see his report. We saw for ourselves that nothing suspicious was seen. Then we stopped at a second gallery near Mr. Stein’s.

A tall, light-haired young man loudly held court at a desk in the middle of the store. He had a phone to one ear and talked to a pair of well-dressed matrons and another trendily dressed man.

“Hal, get a good look at that sculpture and tell me it isn’t the hottest thing in years,” the young man directed. The other man gazed moodily at an abstract plastic contortion of some kind. “Ladies, I’m telling you, the blue frames on those prints. Joe, you’re back. Get your tickets and get out here. That show is going to be the biggest thing this season… You are really gonna regret it, I promise you. Ladies, would I lie to you? The blue frames. Hal, that is the sculpture you want. I’m telling you. Don’t buy it and you’ll live to regret it.”

“I think I’d live to regret owning it,” I whispered to Mrs. Sperling. “It’s plastic and it looks like it’s in pain.”

“That’s probably the point. Are there any other sculptures here?”

“Yeah.” I took her elbow and guided her to a small bronze on a free-standing white carpeted box.

“Lady, lady, don’t handle the merchandise!” yelped the young man. “Joe, there won’t be any selection by the time the show gets out to you. Those pieces are going like hotcakes.”

“I’m sorry, sir. I should have asked,” Mrs. Sperling answered. “Would it be possible? I have no other way of observing it.”

“Oh.” He spotted Eleanor. “I s’pose. Be careful. Maybe the puce, ladies, but I’m telling you, the blue’s better. Joe, you’re nuts. Come on, for me? Are you gonna buy it, Hal, or not?”

In answer, Hal waved and left. The young man cursed him softly.

“The plastic?” Mrs. Sperling asked me. “And what does he look like?”

I took her over. “Tall, with dishwater blonde hair. The plastic is red, the same color and subtlety as a fire engine on a three-alarm fire.”

“Ooph! It wouldn’t go in my home at all.”

The two ladies abandoned the gallery and the young man found himself hanging up.

“Well, ladies, how are you today?”

“Quite well, thank you,” Mrs. Sperling answered. “You are..?”

“Edgar Hendricks.”

“Mr. Hendricks, I would like to speak with the owner of the gallery.”

“It’s your lucky day, ma’am, I am he. Let me tell you about this sculpture.”

“I’m afraid it would be grossly out of place in my home.”

“Personally, I can’t stand it, either.”

Mrs. Sperling’s eyebrow lifted. “The hottest thing in years?”

Eleanor sniffed at the base. If she’d been a male, I would have worried.

“For the right people, like Hal. He’s into trendy. You, ma’am, are much more interested in something of more lasting value.”

“Actually, I’m interested in Mr. Stein’s gallery.”

“That’s closed. He, uh, passed away. He didn’t carry much sculpture anyway. I’ve got a piece over here that I’m telling you, you want.”

I guided Mrs. Sperling to Hendricks’ pride. She graciously put her hands on it.

“I’d heard rumors Mr. Stein had been selling counterfeit art,” she said, feeling a polished wood carving that resembled a twisted blob.

“Everyone’s heard that one,” said Hendricks. “Can’t prove it, of course.”

“I wonder who started it.”

“I don’t give a damn. Stein’s out of my way, and so much the better. He was what you call supercilious. Biggest snob in town. Too good to go to anybody’s parties.”

“I take it, your business did much better than his.”

“Well, yeah! Hell, yes!”

“I can imagine.” Mrs. Sperling did not believe him for a second. “What were you doing a week ago tonight?”

“Me? Let’s see. I locked up, and I… What did I do? Oh yeah. I went to Emil’s for a bite to eat and hung around the bar there all evening. Picked up on a chick and brought her home.”

While Mrs. Sperling and Hendricks were conversing, I wandered around. I noticed that his very large computer monitor was on and a spreadsheet was splayed across it. Keeping one eye on Hendricks, I read his store’s financial history for the past six months. Then I wandered away. Mrs. Sperling convinced Hendricks that she really didn’t want the wood blob and we left.

“I get the feeling you don’t believe Hendricks was doing better than the late Mr. Stein,” I said, pulling the De Ville into traffic.

“Not for one minute.”

“What would you say if I could prove it?” I grinned.

“Donna, you didn’t do anything illegal?”

“I don’t think so. Borderline at worst. The spreadsheet was on his desktop and not minimized or anything. I just looked. They won’t be able to trace it to me anyway because I just looked.”

“What did you find?”

“Hendricks has been operating in the red since July, and he wasn’t doing too well then.”

“Which means unless Mr. Stein was doing worse, a very unlikely situation, Mr. Hendricks has every reason to be pleased by Mr. Stein’s death.”

“Which he as good as said he was.” I checked the rearview mirror and changed lanes. “Looks like we’ve got another suspect.”

“Even more interesting, he fits the description of Dolores’ friend who sold her the Niedemans, and Mr. Hendricks would have access to wholesale prints.”

“But why dump them on Dolores when he could sell them at his store at a much higher markup?”

“What if he got them by dishonest means?”

“That makes sense. Where to now?”

“Let’s investigate the building where Mr. Stein’s gallery is.” Mrs. Sperling got that vague look on her face. “There’s something going on there, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.”

I went ahead and parked in Mr. Stein’s space behind the gallery, mostly because I knew he wouldn’t be using it. We went around front to the foyer, though. According to the directory next to the elevator, there were four offices in the building, but only one of them was occupied. We took the elevator up to the third floor, confirmed that those two offices were empty, then walked down to the second floor.

The second office there was empty. But the one closest to the front of the building still had an occupant for the moment, at any rate. “Best Rentals,” proclaimed the sign on the glass door, with the website address underneath. There was a man on the other side snarling as he glared at his computer.

He was fairly hefty and wearing a heavy wool sweater and gloves with the fingers cut off. It seemed a little extreme except that the building was still pretty chilly. He looked up and glared at us as we walked into the office.

“Can I help you?” he asked more out of duty than interest as we walked in.

“I’m hoping you can help us,” Mrs. Sperling said with a smile. “We’re investigating the death of Mr. Josh Stein.”

The man shook his head. “Never heard of him.”

“He was your downstairs neighbor,” Mrs. Sperling said.

“You mean the gallery?” The man shrugged. “Huh. Didn’t pay much attention to it. But if he was murdered, you might look at the building’s owners.”

“Why?”

“Simple. They’re trying to squeeze us out of here so they can jack up the rental rates.” The man held up his sweater. “See this?”

“I’m afraid not.” Mrs. Sperling smiled.

The man’s eyebrows raised as he realized his mistake. “Shit. I’m sorry. I didn’t notice. Anyway, I’m sitting here bundled up like a fucking Inuit because there’s no frickin’ heat in this building. And no AC, either, in the summer. New owners came in last year and it has been fucking miserable since. They have to be forcing us out. We lost three tenants in the past six months. I’m only here because my lease isn’t up until next month.”

“That sounds most unpleasant.”

“I wouldn’t put it past them to kill that gallery guy. They’ll sink to no end to get more money out of us.”

Mrs. Sperling smiled sympathetically. “It does sound like it. Well, pray excuse us for interrupting your day.”

We left quickly, although we took our time getting down that spiral staircase.

“So, do we have a new suspect?” I asked as we headed to the car.

“I seriously doubt it,” Mrs. Sperling said. “The new owners may be trying to force the old tenants out. It does happen. But I find it hard to believe they would think it in their best interests to murder one.”

“That makes sense.” I sighed. “Where next?”

“Mr. Stein’s gymnasium.”

Thanks to the magic of GPS, I found it easily enough. It was one of those really posh clubs with carpet that you sink to your ankles in, and good-looking desk clerks in tailored blouses and skirts who take your I.D. and exchange it for their own keys to their lockers. Mrs. Sperling asked for the club manager, a Bernice Lockwell. She was busy at that moment. We were invited to sit in the lobby, next to the pro shop, an open area filled with racks of leotards, skimpy tops, and skimpier bottoms.

I happen to have a body that does well in very high French cut bottoms, as long as I have a belt. I’m too long for a single leotard without something breaking it up. While we waited, I looked through the clothes, hoping to find a gorgeous and sexy ensemble for my audition. It was for jazz dancers, and Carson had said wear high-heeled dance shoes. I might still have worn my traditional black ballet leotard and sheer skirt, except He was going to be there. I wanted to look a little sexy. I mean, if He was going to be hanging around Mrs. Sperling, anyway… You never know.

Miss Lockwell showed up just then and brought me down to earth.

“I understand Mr. Joshua Stein was a member here,” Mrs. Sperling said after introducing herself and me.

“Yes. We much regret his passing,” replied Miss Lockwell, a thin, bland corporate type with light blonde hair.

“Did he keep a permanent locker here?”

“As a matter of fact, he did. I wish I could show it to you, but that’s not allowed. And it’s already been cleared out.”

“By who? And when?”

“A youngish man, light-haired, and fairly tall. I don’t think he gave his name. He had a note from Mr. Stein’s widow giving him permission to clear the locker. He came by earlier this afternoon.”

“Do you have a copy of the note?”

Miss Lockwell blushed. “I’m sorry. I had intended to keep and file it, but during our conversation, the young man must have gotten it back and kept it himself. It’s the only explanation I can think of. I can’t find the note anywhere.”

“Somehow, it doesn’t surprise me.” Mrs. Sperling smiled with chagrin. “Thank you very much, Miss Lockwell. Let’s go, Donna.”

Mrs. Sperling remained preoccupied all the way out to the car.

“That guy that cleared out the locker,” I said as I started the engine. “He fits the description, too.”

“I noticed. The aggravating thing is I’ve been given to understand a lot of young men in Southern California are light-haired and tall.”

“There are a lot of them. Where to?”

“What time is it? One thirty?”

“One forty-five.”

“Melrose Avenue, and that designer’s store. Devonaire, I believe.”

The store was in a basic, boring white two-story building. The sign looked like it came straight from Times Square. It was a big black, rectangle, framed by chaser lights. The name, “Devonaire”, flashed on the top half, and a host of existentialist quotes crawled along the bottom half. The store, itself, was actually half-way normal.

It had a white interior, with light pine shelving, and the displays were spare and uncluttered as if Devon didn’t need a lot of stock to make money. He probably didn’t. The prices were incredible.

The clothes were nice, though. He had several knit jumpsuits with stirrup legs, in olives and golds. The dresses were similar colors, but straight sheaths with long sleeves and a variety of back openings and collars, made out of heavy linen.

As we walked in, a clerk folded sweaters with the most wonderful designs on them. The only reason I could tell she was a she was that she had two small bumps on her chest that were too flabby to be pectorals. She wore a clinging black bodysuit, which was the only reason I could see the bumps. Otherwise, her blonde hair had been clipped close to her head, except on top, where it stood up straight. She wore no make-up, and her jaw was unusually masculine. She was at least six feet tall and broad-shouldered. But her hands were small and feminine, and there were the bumps. And one missing between the legs.

“Is there a clerk?” Mrs. Sperling asked softly.

“Uh, yeah.”

“Excuse me, might we see the owner?” Mrs. Sperling said a bit louder.

The clerk looked at us and jerked her head towards the back. We went past her to the dressing rooms, which were stalls with canvas curtains for doors.

The young man was in complete contrast to the clerk. He was male. His hair was black and long, and he wore a black Nehru jacket over black 501 jeans. He couldn’t have been more than five five.

“I am Devon,” he announced with an extremely New York accent. “Welcome to my humble establishment.” He came over and shook our hands. “I’m so glad to see you ladies. And a doggie. I just love poochies.” Eleanor looked at him but accepted the head-scratching as her due. “I know. I know. You’re just browsing. Be my guest. Let’s get to know each other. Don’t worry. You’re in my hands. I will find just the right look for you. Gillian, find these beautiful ladies a glass of wine.”

“Thank you very much, Mr. Devon,” said Mrs. Sperling.

“Oh, please call me Devon. Everybody does.”

“Very well. I’d actually like to ask you a question or two.”

“Ask on, ask on. I’m an open book.”

Gillian, the clerk, pressed a glass of white wine into my hand. I sniffed at it. It wasn’t bad.

“Thank you,” said Mrs. Sperling. She didn’t drink hers. “Devon, I understand you knew Mr. Joshua Stein.”

“Oh, lord. For years. We’ve known each other since we were babes practically.”

“And how long would that be?”

“Let’s see, I came out here, what, four years ago. I had a fling with Jeff, then there was Thomas. Oh, yeah. I met Josh when I was dating Earl. Christmas two years ago.”

“I see. I was told you had a disagreement with Mr. Stein a week ago today.”

“Of course, we did.” Devon laughed. “Josh and I, we’re always tiffing. Last Wednesday was nothing.”

“There was a piece of pottery lost.”

“Oh, don’t tell me, you’re here about the insurance. I told Josh I’d pay for it. I called him up that night. Listen, don’t even worry about it. Or would you rather I paid the company? Honest, I’ll pay for it. It’s no big deal.”

“What were you arguing about?”

“Silly stuff. I get excited, you know? But Josh has a wonderful gallery. It’s over in Beverly Hills. Wait a minute, you’ve already been out there. Of course, you have, for the claim, right? Isn’t it marvelous? He’s got the most wonderful pieces. Did you see that beautiful abstract by Winston Seever? It’s incredible.”

Mrs. Sperling pressed her lips together. “I’m afraid I didn’t.”

“Oh, check it out the next time you’re in. It is simply wonderful.”

“Regarding Wednesday, where were you that evening?”

“Oh, nightclubbing. The usual. I’m all over the place. Where were you? Or does it make any difference? Do you nightclub? I know the most incredible hot spot.”

“Were you there Wednesday?”

“I told you, I’m everywhere.”

“What time did you say you called Mr. Stein.”

“I don’t believe I did!” Devon giggled. “Oh, hell, it was nine o’clock, ten o’clock, eleven o’clock, somewhere in there. Ask Josh. He could tell you. Or is he trying to say I didn’t call? He’d do that. Trust me, I did. Why would I say I did when I didn’t, because I am going to pay for that pottery. I mean I’d be stupid to say I told him I’d pay for it if I wasn’t going to. That man is such a stick in the mud. But has he got a great gallery.”

“Well, thank you very much, Devon.” Mrs. Sperling turned, then stopped. “I just thought, where was Mr. Stein when you called him?”

“Where else? His home. He closes the place at six, on the dot. Are you leaving already?”

“It’s been very pleasant, but we have other appointments.”

“I’ll bet you do. Well, come back soon. We’ll get you something nice to try on. Gillian, take these glasses.”

Devon escorted us out with a running monologue on how nice we were, how great Josh was, and how nice it would be to see us again. Mrs. Sperling let out a sigh of relief when we got back to the car.

“He’s a character,” I said.

“Home, Donna. I can’t take much more of this.”

I chuckled. “At least he didn’t assume you were handicapped.”

“It’s amazing what people don’t notice. And that’s the second time today.”

“Well, you don’t wear sunglasses, and you don’t carry a white cane. He must have figured you had Eleanor in a harness for a different purpose.”

Mrs. Sperling frowned. “He didn’t tell us anything, either.”

“That’s right. He didn’t. And he lied about Wednesday night. Or did he? The coroner’s report said Stein died between eight and ten, or something like that.”

“He also said that Mr. Stein was at home when he called. It’s possible Mr. Stein led Devon to believe he was at home when he wasn’t. But if Mr. Stein was at the house, then Ms. Bistler has some explaining to do.”

I gasped. “He kept talking as if Stein was alive.”

“I noticed. That is easily managed.”

“That’s still another suspect. How many possibles do we have?”

“Well, there’s Fred Gonzagos. He has no real motive visible, but possible because of a suspicious disappearance, compounded by suspicious remarks made the last time he was seen. Until we find him, nothing much can be learned there. Then there’s Ramona Bistler. She took a mysterious drive the night of her husband’s death that she lied about, and she has a substantial motive on several levels. And of course, Devon. No known motive beyond a vague argument, although I did get the impression he was less fond of Mr. Stein than he wanted us to believe.”
“But Devon is short and dark. Wait. Gillian isn’t. She’s tall and blonde, too.”

“But she’s female.”

“More gender neutral,” I said. “Get her out of a bodysuit, and you couldn’t tell by looking at her unless you looked real closely at her hands, and even then, it’s a push.”

“Hm. There is that to consider. We also have Edgar Hendricks. He, too, fits the description of a mysterious young man known to be selling potentially stolen prints possibly belonging to Mr. Stein, and known to have removed possible evidence. We should confirm that note. The only problem is we can’t trust the veracity of the only person who can confirm it. We should also confirm Mr. Hendricks’ whereabouts the night of the murder before it gets too much later and memories get dimmer. I’m afraid, Donna, I’m going to have to send you bar hopping again tonight.”

“Oo. Emil’s is expensive.”

Mrs. Sperling chuckled. “Get Phillip to take you.”

“What?” My jaw dropped. “Are you kidding? I can barely get out a complete sentence when he’s around. He’s not going to want to go out with a peon like me, anyway.”

“Don’t sell yourself short.”

“Oh, come on, Mrs. Sperling. A nobody dancer and he can go out with major players? In my dreams.”

“I could ask him for you, if you like.”

“Don’t you dare!”

“If you insist, I won’t. But please see that you are accompanied.”

“I will.”

 

Anne Louise Bannon

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