mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Six

Glen’s door was open when I got home, leading me to deduce that he was still out. A frigid breeze blew into the hallway from his open window. I didn’t know if Mrs. Sperling was up or not. No lights were on, but that didn’t mean anything. I knew she was home. She’d left a note on the bulletin board between Glen’s and my rooms informing us that there was no need to be up early as she had no plans and was absolutely not going to receive.

I took advantage of it and slept until noon. I beat Glen to the bathroom. He was still in there when the phone rang. It was my mother wanting to know if I was coming to Sunday dinner the next day. I told her I’d call her back after I’d talked to Mrs. Sperling.

I decided to try the kitchen first. At bare minimum, I’d get something to eat. Mrs. Osgood was there, putting together a tray.

“Mrs. Sperling is not feeling good today,” she explained. “Will you bring this up for her?”

“Sure. Can I eat first?”

“You should.”

“I’ll get it. I thought I saw some cereal in the cupboard.”

I had. Glen came in as I got out the milk.

“She’s having one of her days,” he grumbled.

“Mrs. Sperling?” I asked.

“Yes.” Glen morosely removed a bowl from the cabinet. “She has two kinds. A kind where she just doesn’t feel like getting out of bed. Those are okay. Then she has sick days. Those are totally awful. I gotta be around to carry trays, but she doesn’t get many, so I’m stuck waiting all day.”

“You could do homework,” volunteered Mrs. Osgood.

“I should, but it’s totally boring.”

“You’re in school?” I asked.

“Yeah. U.C.L.A.”

“No kidding. My best friend’s fiance is a resident at the medical center there. What’s your major?”

“Psych.”

“The tray is ready,” Mrs. Osgood broke in.

“I’ll take it up,” I said. “I’ve got to talk to Mrs. Sperling anyway. I haven’t got anything better to do, so if you want to ditch, Glen, why don’t you?”

He grinned. “You don’t mind? Awesome.”

I put my bowl in the sink and picked up the tray. Mrs. Sperling’s room was dark. Light filtered through the sheer curtains on the long window leaving a square patch on the king-sized bed. Eleanor lay curled up at the bed’s foot. She looked as dismal as her mistress.

Mrs. Sperling was on her back in the middle of the bed with an ice pack covering her eyes.

“Mm?” she softly moaned as I entered.

“It’s me, Donna. Mrs. Osgood sent me up with this tray.”

“Put it on the bedside table.”

“There’s tea here and some toast.” I set the tray down where she’d asked. “You wouldn’t happen to be suffering from a migraine, would you?”

She winced. “You would have to guess that. I hate admitting it, but I am. I’m not the fuzzy slipper type.”

“Actually, highly creative and intelligent women are more likely to get them.”

“Where did you read that?”

“I was told by my doctor when I had one. It’s not an experience I’d like to repeat.”

“I wouldn’t wish it on Alisa Montrose, even though she is probably behind this one.”

“Was she the lady last night who was so surprised that you could get from one end of a room to the other without killing yourself?”

“Yes.”

“May her face fall even faster this time. I felt like punching her.”

“I abhor violence. If it wouldn’t be so unfair to the poor man, I’d wish arthritis on her plastic surgeon.” She sighed loudly. “It’s so aggravating, Donna. Why can’t people understand I can get along, in many ways, just as well as they can?”

“I don’t know. It seems pretty amazing to me that you do, especially when I think of how much I use my sight. We used to do trust walks in my acting classes. We closed our eyes and just walked, trusting that our classmates would catch us before we bumped into anything. It was the scariest feeling. And yet you do it all the time. It’s hard for me to understand how.”

“It must be as hard for you to imagine being blind as it is for me to imagine seeing. There’s no sense in it, though. Why do some people insist on treating me like glass when the evidence of my capabilities is thrown in their faces?”

“They’re blind to it?”

That got a chuckle out of her. “Certainly in the case of Alisa Montrose. My heavens, that woman is disgusting. She yells at me as if I were deaf, holds me up as if I were a cripple, then gushes on incessantly about what a miracle I’ve achieved in spite of my tragic affliction. I ask you, is there anything tragic about me?”

“Well, you’re a widow.”

“That isn’t tragic. Heartbreaking, but not tragic. If anything, John’s death was rather mundane.”

“It was?”

“Yes. He had your basic heart attack. It all happened almost twenty years ago, and he died almost instantly. He understood, and he was a cinematographer, one of the best. His eyes were his living, and yet he rarely noticed my lack of sight.”

“You still miss him.”

“A husband is a hard thing to lose. Still, I’m a strong person. There is a great deal of truth in time’s healing powers. Sometimes I think that’s Alisa’s whole problem. I’ve had it fairly easy, but that woman has never known a moment’s adversity. The worse trauma she’s suffered is a broken fingernail. Poor thing, she deserves pity. Of the two of us, I’d say she’s the handicapped one. A lack of basic intelligence is far more devastating, don’t you think?”

“To those who have to put up with her, it is. She probably doesn’t know the difference.”

“She doesn’t.” Mrs. Sperling suddenly smiled. “It’s terrible how that woman brings out my worse instincts. I was unforgivably rude to her last night, and worse yet, I thoroughly enjoyed it.”

“What happened?”

“She was displaying her Niedeman serigraph, the HN6. She was bragging about it, when I, with tremendous pleasure, informed her that it was a fake. She was aghast. How could I possibly know? I couldn’t see it. I pointed out that she could, and it hadn’t stopped her from being fooled. Of course, she wouldn’t believe me, so I told her about the smell, just to prove I knew what I was talking about. I doubt she believed me even after that, but Norma Delgado said she heard Alisa mention something about an appraisal later.”

“Was it a fake?”

“Certainly. Do you think I would risk her calling my bluff? Furthermore, she got it from Mr. Stein.”

“So maybe he is counterfeiting.”

“Possibly. I also ran into the son of some old friends of my family. Phillip has been collecting Niedemans since before the artist’s death. He, naturally, has all of the commemoratives. I overheard his comment that he was very unlikely to end up in Alisa’s predicament, even though he’d recently made a purchase. I found it interesting that he was so certain of his serigraph’s authenticity. So later I managed to obtain an invitation to look at his sculptures on Monday afternoon.”

“Okay. Is there anything planned for tomorrow?”

“You may have the day off after church. Do you belong to any?”

“Not really.”

“Fine. You will accompany me then. I am a practicing Catholic, and I hold the Church’s view that a little religion once a week is essential for personal growth, even if that is a minimum. Unless you have some serious objections.”

“No. I guess not. I’m Catholic, too, but I haven’t been to church in a while.”

“A providential meeting, then. We’ll be going to nine o’clock mass, after that you’ll be free.”

“Fine. My mom wants me to go home for dinner. My brother and his fiancee are coming.”

“That should be pleasant. Did you find anything out from Mr. Lansky?”

“Oh boy, did I.” I told her the whole story. She tsk’d over the fight.

“I shouldn’t have let you go. I was afraid there might be trouble. Was Mr. Lansky hurt?”

“Mickey didn’t think so. Lansky was pretty looped, too.”

“It’s fortunate that your friend was there, although I deplore the necessity.”

I shrugged. “Mickey probably enjoyed it. That’s one of the reasons we never made it as a couple. I can’t handle fighting, and Mickey loves it. He was always trying to get some debate going with me. I hated it, and he hated it when I refused to argue back.”

“All for the better then. Mr. Lansky wanted to know what I had on him?”

“Yeah. I never told him who I worked for. I figured he overheard me talking about you to my friends and realized I was pumping him and got scared. But why?”

“That is the question. Another piece for the puzzle and precious few of them are fitting with any other.”

“Did you get to talk with Ramona Bistler?”

“Only long enough to secure an invitation to her home sometime this week. What you’ve just told me shall make it a very interesting visit indeed.” She paused. “You say this Mickey is just a friend of yours.”

“Alright,” I groaned. “He was more. It just didn’t work, and it never will.”

“Indeed, and all the more painful because you two truly care for each other.” She yawned.

“I guess I ought to take off. Feeling any better?”

“Some. I expect I shall have to just sleep it off. Would you please take Eleanor on a walk for me?”

“Sure. Eleanor, come.”

Eleanor got up slowly, looked back at her mistress, then padded out of the room at my side.

My whole family showed up on Sunday. It made for quite a crowd around the table, especially since my brother’s fiancee, Elise, and my brother-in-law, Ernie, were there also. My other sister, Denise, and I were the only singles left, something Peter made a point of rubbing in. He also made a couple cracks about the odds against Debbie’s marriage working out. Ernie just laughed and said he was used to beating the odds. Debbie laughed also, but I could tell she wanted to slug Peter one. Elise did.

“Hey!” Peter yelped.

“You quit being so snotty,” reprimanded Elise.

“That’s right, Elise,” I cheered. “Keep him in line.”

“Thanks, Donna.” Peter glared at me.

“Children,” sighed my father.

“Let’s not get into an argument,” Mom cut in.

“So how’s the drug-making business?” Debbie asked.

Peter’s a chemist for a pharmaceutical company in Pasadena.

“Good,” replied Peter, ignoring Debbie’s cut. None of us would ever let Peter live down that he was into drugs for a living. “I’m working.” He looked right at me.

“So am I,” I said with a slight grin.

“I heard. Driving a car. Some great career that is.”

“I think it’s a perfectly good one,” said Denise. “It’s honest work, for one thing.”

“And I can still work on my acting career,” I added.

“Still thinking about that, huh?” Dad asked with a worried frown.

Mom sighed. “I hope you’re not endangering your job.”

“Not in the least.” I squirmed under Peter’s grin. “Mrs. Sperling says it’s perfectly alright. In fact, she’s encouraging it.”

“That is terrific,” said Denise. “I wish I had a boss like that.”

“It sure is nice of her, isn’t it, Peter?” Elise looked at him. Peter didn’t answer.

“Mom says you’re living in Beverly Hills,” said Debbie, still trying to get Peter back.

“Yeah. It’s a real nice house. I’ve got my own room, but I do have to share a bathroom with the houseboy. He is a slob, too. He’s into collecting Niedemans.”

“Really? I just got one this morning, the HN6,” said Peter.

“No kidding. Where?” I asked.

“A little place down in Hollywood. This lady owns it. She always sells them cheap.”

“You got it this morning? That’s weird.”

“I know. I got a hell of a deal. I get all my Niedemans there. I’m on the broad’s waiting list. I’ve been looking for HN6 for a while. Then yesterday she called me and said she’d found a couple extra and did I still want one. So I hot-footed it out there this morning, and grabbed it.”

“Peter is such a sexist,” sighed Elise. “Have you seen those prints?”

“Just the one,” I said. “And you’re right.”

“I’ve seen a whole bunch,” said Debbie. “Peter, your taste is despicable.”

“That’s not fair,” Denise said. “Niedeman’s women are idealized, the embodiment of the perfect woman. I think they’re fascinating.” Denise is an art major.

Peter laughed. “I’m just buying them for the investment value, and, Elise, you know it. The guy is still hot and the prices are going up.”

“Only because he’s dead,” said Debbie.

Denise shook her head. “Not necessarily. He was very popular before he died.”

“Either way,” I snickered. “Peter, are you sure you haven’t got a counterfeit?”

“Yeah, I’m sure,” Peter retorted.

“I might be able to tell,” said Denise.

“So can I,” I said, smugly.

“Since when are you such an expert?” said Peter.

“Since Glen Weir got stuck with a fake.”

“Who’s he?”

“Mrs. Sperling’s houseboy. She spotted it and told me how.”

“Well, most knock-offs of Niedemans are easy to tell because they’re such bad quality,” Denise said.

“These are really good ones, Denise.” I smiled. “Most people can’t see the difference.”

“Well, my supplier could,” bragged Peter. “She may be pretty flakey, but she knows her art.”

“Flakey?” I asked. “How?”

Peter shrugged. “She’s old, and she dresses like she’s from the sixties, and she’s a space cadet, keeps talking about her past lives.”

“Dolores Carmine!” I almost jumped.

“You know her?” Peter was as shocked as I was.

“I’ve met her. Mrs. Sperling knows her. We were checking out Glen’s fake.”

I have to admit I enjoyed the sick look that came over Peter’s face just then. As soon as we finished eating, he had Denise look over his print. She said it looked good. I sniffed it but couldn’t be sure.

At about two thirty Peter couldn’t take it anymore and talked me into following him to Hollywood in my car and going to see Dolores Carmine. It wasn’t too hard. I wanted to talk to Dolores, also. Fake or real, the source of that print could be very important. I could just see Mrs. Sperling’s gratified smile.

Most of the stores on Dolores’ block were closed. But there was a light on in the gallery. I held Peter and Elise back.

“Peter, I’ve got some very specific questions to ask,” I said. “So will you please let me do the talking, and play along?”

“Why?” he asked.

“Just trust me.”

“Peter, can you please?” Elise asked.

“Alright.”

I led the way in. Nothing had changed in the musty old shop. Dolores shuffled in from the back, muttering obscenities. She smiled when she saw me.

“Hello, little bitch,” she said, grinning, then noticed Peter and Elise. “And you two shits are back.”

“They’re with me,” I said. “Mrs. Sperling wanted them to come. She asked me to ask you a few questions about the serigraph you sold them this morning. She’s kind of tied up right now, or she would’ve come herself.”

Dolores shrugged noncommittally. “What the fuck.”

“Where did you get it? Peter, here, told me you’d just got some others in.”

“Yeah. This young prick came by and sold them to me cheap.”

“What was his name?”

“Do I fucking look like I’d ask?”

“Do you remember what he looked like?”

“Tallish with dishwater hair.”

“Are the prints genuine?”

“Fuck, yes.”

“But how do you know if you don’t know the person who sold them to you?”

“He said he was a friend of Fred Gonzagos.”

“Those aren’t exactly the best credentials.”

“Fred’s not gonna stick me with shit. He knows better, and he’s a friend anyway.”

“Speaking of Fred, have you talked to him lately?”

“Not since early last week.”

“Any idea where he is?”

Dolores frowned. “Why? Is he missing?”

“Yep. Since Wednesday night. If you hear anything, will you let Mrs. Sperling know?”

“I suppose.” She stopped and looked at me. “I knew you. You were a queen, a Goth queen. Do you remember?”

“Uh, no.”

“I was a Roman decurion. You bore three sons for me.”

“Great. Listen, Mrs. Sperling’s waiting for me. I’ve gotta run. Thanks for the answers.”

I pushed Peter and Elise out of the shop ahead of me.

“She said I saved her from an evil wizard,” Peter chuckled.

“I never knew you were that noble,” I returned.

“He has his moments,” said Elise.

I remembered there was something she saw in him. My sisters and I could never quite figure out what. Peter can be charming and warm, but all my sisters and I usually saw was his more odious side. I have to be fair. We weren’t always very pleasant to him.

“Listen,” I said. “I don’t want to take Dolores’s word on that print.”

“Why not?” asked Peter.

“Because Fred Gonzagos happens to be a counterfeiter of fine artwork.”

“You know some pretty interesting people,” teased Elise.

“I don’t know him.” I sighed. I didn’t dare take a chance on letting it get back to my mom that I was mixed up in a murder. “Mrs. Sperling thinks that Glen’s fake was done by this Gonzagos guy. It’s a long story. Anyway, why don’t I take your print and have Mrs. Sperling check it out? I’ll get it back to you Monday, Tuesday at the latest, I promise.”

Peter grumbled. “Oh, alright. You got my work phone?”

“Sure. Or will Elise be at your apartment?”

“Of course,” Elise replied. “I don’t go into the store until five Monday and Tuesday.”

“Elise.” Peter shifted with the guilty warning.

I laughed. “Don’t tell me…”

“Yeah, she’s already there,” sighed Peter.

“Don’t tell our parents, please?” Elise begged. “My old roommate’s covering for me. My dad’d kill me if he knew.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t tell the folks,” I said. “But I’d sure like to tell Debbie.”

“Donna!” Peter groaned. “Come on. We’re already getting married.”

“Okay. But no more cracks about her and Ernie.”

Peter nodded reluctantly and went and got the print. It was rolled up in a large cardboard tube. I put it in my car and again talked the motor into running.

 

Anne Louise Bannon

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