mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Seven

I got my gratified smile Sunday evening. Mrs. Sperling didn’t say whether or not my information meant anything. I got the feeling it fit in with some hypothesis she had, and she was holding her cards close to her chest, so to speak.

The next morning, I got back from dance class and cleaned up just barely in time to drive Mrs. Sperling to the Braille Institute, on Vermont. I thumbed through my Backstage West while she tutored Delsie Simmons, a young black girl recently blinded in a gang altercation. One of the aides told me that Mrs. Sperling always got the tough ones because she was the only one who could handle them.

Delsie was not only prone to skipping her homework, she was also very belligerent, and had yet to accept her handicap. I got a little nervous when I heard yelling coming from the room. It soon stopped and eventually, Mrs. Sperling came out unscathed and unruffled. She waited until Delsie had left the building before giving me our next destination.

It was a luxury condo nestled in one of those high rises along Wilshire, just past the crossing with Santa Monica Boulevard. I don’t know if that’s Beverly Hills proper, or West Los Angeles, but it’s still rich kid country, and not far from U.C.L.A. Being help, I got to park the car myself after Mrs. Sperling had been helped out of the car by the building’s doorman. She was waiting in the lobby for me when I got back.

“What took so long?” she asked.

“They don’t have visitor parking here,” I grumbled. “Parking in this city is insane. It’s a good thing we didn’t bring the limo.”

Mrs. Sperling nodded. “I understand it’s worse in New York.”

“That’s what I hear. Know where the elevator is?”

“Actually, no. Why don’t I just take your elbow?”

I looked around, searching for the conveyance, then took off at a brisk pace. Mrs. Sperling matched it, with Eleanor matching us both.

“He said it was three doors down to the right,” Mrs. Sperling said as we got off on the twelfth floor.

She and Eleanor took the lead from there. The door opened seconds after Mrs. Sperling rang and he ushered us in. I saw the condo first. It was mostly a huge living room furnished in black, white and royal blue minimalist with a long window taking up most of one wall and which overlooked Wilshire Boulevard and the condominiums across the street. The view made me woozy. I looked away. In the center of the room, a spiral staircase led to a loft. Under the loft was a tiny kitchen which matched the living room, and a black and glass dining room.

Then I saw Him. Tall and slender, with a chest that was just broad enough, lightly tanned skin, a fabulous face and beautiful, laughing green eyes. His sunbleached hair was dark rooted and clipped and arranged with stylish abandon. I’d seen His dark bomber jacket, yellow print shirt and baggy pants on mannequins on Rodeo Drive. Not that exact ensemble, but things like it.

It was Phillip DuPre, live and incredibly handsome, right in front of me. I was in shock. I mean, I figured Mrs. Sperling might have a few industry contacts, having been married to a cinematographer and all. But Hollywood’s latest golden boy director? A guy who had directed two mega-hit feature films, among other things, and now had every big name in music screaming at Him to do their videos? This was the son of some old family friends?

I had first seen Him at a cattle call for His second rock video. The first was from His movie “Five Alarm”, and that was the one that got the music industry so excited. He was behind the table with the casting director and producer, although He was obviously in charge. I remember joking with Tina that I would have loved a chance to fall in love with Him.

At the time, of course, it was ridiculous. I was just one of a thousand dancers who were auditioning for a role. He’d smiled at me. He’d smiled at all of us. I got called back, and He smiled at me again. I didn’t get the role. I don’t know if it was intense jealousy that she was working with that gorgeous man and I wasn’t, but I did not like the girl they chose.

“Phillip, I’d like you to meet my new chauffeur, Donna Brechter,” Mrs. Sperling was saying.

It dawned on me I’d been so busy ogling I hadn’t heard or seen any of the traditional greetings.

“Hi,” He said, pleasantly. He held out His hand.

“Hi,” I said.

Really winning dialogue, I know, but my heart was pounding so hard I couldn’t think straight. The man was just that gorgeous. I remembered to shake His hand, only He’d already started withdrawing it. I grabbed, He fumbled. It went back and forth for an hour, it seemed like. Mrs. Sperling says I didn’t, but I turned three shades of purple.

He laughed, quiet and really cute, then looked at me again.

“You’ve auditioned for me, haven’t you?” He asked.

“You remember?” I was in seventh heaven.

He actually blushed. “Well, not quite. It’s something more along Aunt Delilah’s line. Uh, deductive reasoning. I’m pretty good at faces, and if I can’t attach a place to one, I probably saw it at an audition. You look vaguely familiar, but nothing else, ergo…”

“Yeah. It was for the ‘White Heat’ video. I got called back.”

“Right. I remember now.” He smiled even more warmly if that were possible. “You were good.”

“Thanks.”

“Phillip, I believe you have some sculpture to show me?” broke in Mrs. Sperling.

“Yeah. It’s right this way. Would you like me to take you around the room first?”

“Thank you, Phillip. That would be quite nice.”

He took her elbow and guided her around the room, letting her place the furniture, warning her about a wobbly stand here, or a sharp corner there. His Niedemans hung all over, the only other colors in the room besides the main decor. They were all in thick black lacquered frames. He had several bronze sculptures and some clay ones, and one beautiful white porcelain figure of a woman. It was to these pieces that He drew Mrs. Sperling’s attention.

“A Remington?” Mrs. Sperling chuckled, going over a bronze of a cowboy on a bronc.

“I have my moments.” He shrugged. “Besides, that’s investment art. I got a good deal on it and give me a few years and I’ll get a hell of a profit on it. In fact, I’ve got a signed Ansel Adams print in the dining room. I could get some real bucks on that.”

“Your deals are legendary, Phillip,” replied Mrs. Sperling. Everything He did was legendary. But Mrs. Sperling seemed immune to it. She moved to another bronze. “And what have we here?”

“Now that was a real find.” He leaned against the back of the black leather sofa and folded His arms across His chest. “It’s a bronze by Hans Niedeman. I got it about a year before he died. They’re real rare. He did not do many of them. It’s like the Remington, in that the sculpture is almost a three-dimensional version of the painting.”

“So this is what all the fuss is about.”

“That and the investment value. Most of it isn’t worth that much, more for rich teenagers and upper-middle-class types. But I’ve got some signed pieces that will bring in some money. I’m glad I got into it when I did. It saved me a few bucks.”

Mrs. Sperling laughed. “Young man, when have you ever wanted for anything? You are as penurious as your father.”

He shrugged. “So Dad made sure I knew the value of a buck. You know the industry. I’m doing good now, but it won’t necessarily last. I gotta invest in something to keep me comfortable when the glow fades.”

“Phillip, I find your complete grasp of reality utterly refreshing.” Mrs. Sperling smiled at Him with genuine affection. “And your lack of an over-inflated ego even more so.”

“Who can keep an ego with two younger brothers? Say, Aunt Delilah, have you seen Richard lately?”

“He’s not back from law school already, is he?”

“I heard you were back east last week.

“Briefly. Jimmy’s tour kicked off, and I visited a few friends, but I didn’t leave New York.”

“He’s graduating this December, and at the top of his class. He is so thrilled. He wants you at the graduation.”

“I wouldn’t dream of missing it.” Mrs. Sperling cleared her throat.

I remembered my job. I wandered over to the HN6 where it hung by the window, out of which I refused to look. Reminding myself that I was twelve stories above solid ground was not going to do my nerves any good.

“My brother just got one of these,” I said.

“One of what?” Mrs. Sperling walked over to me.

“This Niedeman print. He says it’s one of the commemoratives.”

“Well, Aunt Delilah?” He ambled over. “Real or fake?”

She sniffed. “The smell seems genuine, so it’s not one of the fakes I’ve been chasing. Where did you get it?”

He held up his hands. “Sorry. Gotta protect my sources.”

“Phillip. I’m certainly the last person to be creating competition.”

“Aunt Delilah, I’d love to tell you. But the guy is real nervous. He’s getting me some terrific deals, and I don’t want to ruin it on an accidental slip of the tongue. Besides, I promised I wouldn’t.”

“I see.” She didn’t believe Him for some reason.

“I bet you do. How about if I offer lunch as a consolation prize, including your dancer hyphen chauffeur.”

“That sounds worthwhile.”

Mrs. Sperling didn’t press the issue.

He insisted on driving us in His BMW. Mrs. Sperling insisted on sitting in the back with Eleanor, which meant I had to sit up front. I was heartbroken. I tried to make some intelligent small talk, but what do you say to a god?

Mrs. Sperling kept the conversational ball rolling and even set up a few opportunities for my brilliant wit and dazzling charm to shine out. I managed not to get tongue-tied and sounded like I had a reasonable command of the language. Other than that, I was pretty quiet.

He was kind of quiet, too, which surprised me a little. At the audition, He’d seemed really outgoing, the kind of person who knows He’s in charge but doesn’t have to ram it down everyone’s throat. He answered Mrs. Sperling’s questions about His family and other little things. He smiled at me. I smiled back, trying not to melt.

We ended up at this little eatery in Santa Monica where several more distinguished members of the Industry were dining. After having been dazzled by Phillip DuPre, and I confess, still under His spell, these other big shots had no impact on me whatsoever. I was so cool, it was disgusting.

It was very satisfying, too, when our waitress just happened to be this little witch I knew from my dance class who was a horrible name dropper and treated me like I was the biggest no-talent in Southern California. She recognized Phillip DuPre immediately. And there I was, having lunch with Him, and on a first name basis. It was certainly one of my better days.

Mrs. Sperling waited until we were eating dessert before bringing up the murder.

“Phillip,” she began, after wrapping her hands around a cup of very good cappuccino. “I know you think you have very good reasons for keeping your friend’s name from me, but please consider, your supplier could know something related to Joshua Stein’s death.”

He winced. “Uh, yeah. I suppose it could.”

Mrs. Sperling sighed. “You know very well it could, young man. I don’t want you doing anything foolish.”

“I’m not going–”

“Phillip.”

He grimaced. “Tell you what. I’ll talk to my source. If he agrees, I’ll set up a meeting between you two. Will that redeem me?”

Mrs. Sperling smiled with maternal affection. “It’s a start.”

After lunch, we went back and got the De Ville. We paid a call on Sergeant Michaelson, who growled that there were no new developments. We tried to pay a call on Ramona Bistler, but she was gone. In desperation, Mrs. Sperling directed me to Dolores Carmine’s. She was in, but not much help.

“You have no idea where Fred Gonzagos might be?” Mrs. Sperling pressed.

“If I had I would’ve told you,” replied Dolores.

“What did he say the last time you saw him?”

“Nothing. He complained about the capitalist fucks and how they don’t recognize his art, and I sympathized. He asked me to loan him a few bucks. I said go piss up a rope. I don’t have a few bucks.”

“What did he want the money for?”

“For a few drinks. What else? The way that son of a bitch drinks, it would take more than a few bucks to get him drunk. But, shit. That’s his problem. I can barely eat as it is.”

“Did he say anything about going anywhere?”

“Just to his favorite bar. Hennessy’s. Down on Sunset, near La Cienega. It’s an okay place. A little too capitalist for my tastes. But it’s okay.”

“About this latest shipment of Niedemans, how many did you get?”

“Shit, about five of them.”

“That’s a lot.”

Dolores just shrugged. “Since when am I gonna argue with some asshole who wants wholesale cost for them? I grabbed the whole bunch.”

“Did it occur to you they might be hot?”

“Why would I think something like that? Fuck, yes, I thought they might be. But I didn’t ask questions. I’m not stupid. Besides, he was Fred’s friend. Fred don’t send me no shit.”

“And Fred is missing. Does he have any relatives that you know of?”

“A sister, I think. Maybe an ex-wife. I don’t know any names.”

“Somehow, I’m not surprised. Well, thank you, Dolores. You’ve been exceptionally kind.”

“Right. See you later.”

We went back to Beverly Hills to find out what company was the private security patrol around Mr. Stein’s gallery. We did get that name. We drove out to their offices only to find that the guard who had been patrolling the night of the murder was sick, and, no, the receptionist could not give out his address or phone number.

Before giving up, Mrs. Sperling had me take her to the Beverly Hills P.D. again. There, she tried to get the girl in the records department to see if Fred Gonzagos had a file in the national crime computer. The girl said she couldn’t. Mrs. Sperling had her call the chief. The chief had already gone home for the day.

“That settles it,” said Mrs. Sperling. “It’s a sign from God. We may as well go home. Eleanor, forward.”

In the car, I tried to cheer her up.

“We’ll get the record tomorrow,” I said. “I’ll run over there first thing after dance class. Or I could even skip dance class.”

“Oh no. Don’t do that.”

“I don’t mind.”

“Darling, you need to keep in shape. I also agreed to support your efforts.”

“You don’t have to. I mean, I’m working for you. You get first priority.”

“Which I’ll take when I need it.”

“Tell you what. I’ll call a couple of my friends and we’ll go out to that Hennessey’s bar tonight. I’ll ask around for Fred and see what I find. If he’s truly a regular, someone will know him.”

“Donna, you do realize that could be dangerous.”

“I’ll call Mickey. He loves a good fight, remember?”

“I do. I hope that is the least of the trouble you find.” Mrs. Sperling sighed. “There is a possibility that Mr. Gonzagos is a pre-meditated killer, and he may not appreciate someone trying to find him. It’s also not unlikely that someone else again might not want Mr. Gonzagos found.”

“I’ll lie about my identity. No big.”

“It could be. You’re as bad as Phillip. The both of you have this fantasy of playing detective. This isn’t a child’s game of cops and robbers. We’re looking for a cold-blooded murderer.”

“I know basic self-defense. And I don’t see you carrying a gun.”

“That doesn’t mean I don’t.”

“But–”

“If I can hear it, I can hit it, and my hearing is very good. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve hardly had to use it. I might also add that there’s a gun in the glove compartment of each of my cars. Just keep in mind the objective is not to use it.”

“You really think I might need a gun if I go to Hennessy’s tonight?”

“Probably not. But it could stir up trouble.”

“Yick. On the other hand, it could probably help things.”

“True.” There was a pause. “Very well. Call your friends, if you wish. However, before you go, we will go over the proper use of firearms, and you will carry one. You’re not permitted for it, but I’d rather pay a fine than for a funeral.”

“So reassuring. You sure you don’t want to come along?”

“No. It’s better that you go without me. I’m hardly inconspicuous.”

Dinner was ready when we got back to the house. I called Tina and Mickey right away, then sat down to eat. Earl was working that night, so Tina was looking for an excuse to get out. Mickey just wanted to go, and a bar suited him fine.

I didn’t tell them I was packing a heater, as they say. I knew how to shoot it, too. Mrs. Sperling made sure of that and promised I’d get some time on a shooting range in the near future.

Hennessey’s was a pretty basic place. A nice restaurant lurked beyond the bar, which was dark and decorated in a pseudo-Victorian style. In one corner a huge projection T.V. displayed a football game. A crowd had gathered around it and cheered on one of the teams. I think it was the Rams, Forty-niners game, but that might have been the following week. I don’t remember, which is odd because I’m an ardent Rams fan.

Mickey and Tina groaned when they saw me heading for the television. Mickey all but picked me up and sat me down at the bar.

“You’ve got other things to do,” he told me.

Tina and I ordered white wine and Mickey got a gin and tonic. The bartender returned with the drinks grumbling about the game. He was bent over and balding and looked as though he’d been mixing drinks since before he was legal.

“You here a lot?” I asked.

“Most every night.”

“There’s this guy, his name’s Fred Gonzagos. I’ve heard he sells artwork. Somebody told me he likes to do his drinking here.”

“Yeah, he does. Hasn’t been in while though.”

“When was the last time you saw him?”

“Last Wednesday.” He squinted at me. “You a cop?”

“Me?” I started. “Are you kidding? I just want to track Fred down. I heard he’s got Niedemans for sale, and he’s the only person in town who’s got ’em. I gotta get one.”

“Well, if he had ’em, they’re all sold by now. He came in here Wednesday pretty happy and with a bit more cash than usual. Said he sold some art. Must be them Niedemans you’re talking about.”

“What time was he here?”

“Early evening, I think. I remember it was later than normal. He missed happy hour. I do know that. He often comes in and eats the hors-d’oeuvres for dinner. Must have been closer to nine, now that I think about it. Bought a couple rounds for these two girls, then made some stupid joke about saving some money for gas.”

I swallowed. “No kidding. You wouldn’t happen to know if he has any relatives or friends that might know where he is, would you?”

“Well, he spends a lot of time cussing out his sister when he gets drunk. I believe her name is Anita. Think she’s married, too.”

“Oh. Great. Well, thanks for the info.”

We only stayed long enough to finish our drinks. I wanted to watch the rest of the football game, but Tina insisted we go someplace either a little quieter or with dancing. We got stuck with the quieter. Most places don’t have dancing on Monday nights. Mickey was disappointed that things had gone so smoothly.

The next morning, I visited the police station briefly after class. When I got home I was surprised to see the kitchen empty. Voices floated in from the dining room.

“Has she considered a breast augmentation?” asked one, a male voice. My heart stopped. It was His.

“Phillip!” gasped Mrs. Sperling.

“It’s a professional issue,” He protested.

“Phillip.”

“Aw, come on, Aunt Delilah. You know that doesn’t turn me on. I think she’s perfectly gorgeous the way she is. But it wouldn’t hurt her career, and we both know it.”

Mrs. Sperling coughed, then called, “Why don’t you come in, Donna?”

They were having brunch, spinach souffle, and baked applesauce. Mrs. Sperling invited me to join them.

“I, uh, don’t exactly smell good,” I protested. “I’ve been working out.”

“Won’t bother me any,” He said, staring at His plate for some reason.

“It’s well within bearable limits for me,” added Mrs. Sperling. “And you need to eat.”

“Well, uh, thanks.” I sat down nervously and helped myself.

“Donna, what was your agent’s name?” asked Mrs. Sperling.

“The theatrical one I’m giving up?”

“You are?” He finally looked at me.

I felt myself blush and really worked at sounding cool and calm. “I’m not getting sent out on enough auditions. It has been a slow season but not that slow. My friend, Tina, has gone out on three or four and got called back twice.”

“Is your friend, Tina, a dancer?” He asked.

“Yeah. She’s really good, and beautiful. She has this really exotic look, almost like a cross between a Black and an Asian, only she’s all Black. She’s real pretty and a terrific actress.”

“We want to know your agent’s name, dear,” pressed Mrs. Sperling.

“Jerry Lawton, over at Lawton, Wheaton, and Weiss,” I said.

“Sh–” He saw Mrs. Sperling’s frown and shook His head. “Him.”

“You seem to know him,” said Mrs. Sperling.

“The man is scum. He does great for his men, but if a girl isn’t into fun and games, he sends her out to just enough auditions and for bad jobs.”

“He’s never made a pass at me,” I said, indignantly.

“He probably has.” He went back to His plate. “You’ve just missed it, is all.”

“Well, there’s got to be at least one honest agent out there,” I grumbled.

He looked at me with a guilty smile. “Yeah, Diogenes, there are a few.”

“Well, why don’t you recommend one, Phillip,” said Mrs. Sperling with a sly grin.

He smiled at her. “Um. She could try Shelly Carson, at the Talent Company.”

“I thought you didn’t like her,” said Mrs. Sperling.

“Okay, she gets more money out of me than I want to spend.” He smiled at me again. “Sometimes there are more important things than budgets.” He got up and wiped His mouth. “I gotta run, Aunt Delilah.”

“Off to cast your new film?” She smiled as He kissed her cheek.

“That’s tomorrow. And it’s a video.”

“That’s right. I had forgotten.”

During that time my heart took a diving leap to my feet. If He was casting a video, there were good odds He needed dancers. And there I was, selling Him on my friend instead of me. Not that I begrudged Tina the sell. I just could have spent some time on me, too.

He turned that wonderful smile on me then fled. I melted and forgave Him for every time He wouldn’t cast me.

Mrs. Sperling only waited long enough for the door to shut.

“My dear Donna, it would appear to me that you are completely infatuated with Phillip.”

“Fat lot of good it’s going to do me. I can’t even put in a plug for myself.”

“There, there. Don’t give up hope yet. If you’re finished eating, hurry and clean up, and call that Shelley Carson. Tell her you can bring her a picture and resume today. Then bring the V.W. around. I’m in a top-down mood, and we’ve got other errands to run, too.”

 

 

 

Anne Louise Bannon

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