mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Thirteen

Except for a flash of deep teal green from a high necked silk blouse, Ramona Bistler was encased in a stunning shade of ivory. Her jacket was double-breasted and hip length over a matching straight skirt that stopped several inches above her knees. Her nylons and pointed pumps with ankle straps matched perfectly.

She sat calmly on her couch. Only her chain-smoking gave away her nerves.

“Back again so soon, Delilah?” she asked. “Please sit down. I’m afraid I can’t stay long. I’ve an appointment with my lawyer.”

“I doubt we’ll be troubling you for more than a few minutes.” Mrs. Sperling made herself comfortable on an overstuffed chair next to the couch. “I was just wondering whether you happened to still have the contents of your husband’s locker at the health club.”

“I never got them. They’re still there for all I know.”

“Odd. According to the club, you sent a note with a young man to go fetch them.”

“I never did that!” Bistler was indignant. “You can’t prove I did, either.”

“Obviously. That’s why I’m here confirming it. It would appear someone has taken advantage of your grief and absconded with your husband’s toiletries.”

“Why the hell would anyone do that? That’s ridiculous!”

“Perhaps not to the person who killed your husband. I suspect there was something in that locker that was damaging. Do you know what was in the locker?”

Bistler thought. “I haven’t a clue.”

For once, I thought, she was being honest.

“Actually, you do,” said Mrs. Sperling. “The same clue I have. Soap, shampoo, conditioner, a blow dryer perhaps, shaving equipment. The normal things one finds in a person’s locker, or bathroom. What I’m wondering right now is was there anything else that might be construed as damaging to your husband’s killer? Obviously, you don’t know. But would you have any idea who might have written that note?”

“Idea?” Bistler stabbed out a half-finished cigarette and lit a new one. “No, I’m afraid not.”

“The man was described as young, tall and light-haired. Who do you know fits that description?”

“No one!” she answered quickly.

“You’re lying, Ramona. You know at least five men who could fit that description, and you’re thinking of someone specific right now.”

“Delilah Sperling, I did not allow you into my house to make wild accusations.”

“I do not make wild accusations,” Mrs. Sperling said. “But I do deduce things and everything about our recent encounters tells me that you have not been entirely honest with me regarding your relationship with your husband.”

Bistler suddenly sobbed. “I’m only trying to do what Josh would have wanted me to do.”

“So, you were his beard, so to speak,” Mrs. Sperling said.

Bistler nodded. “Okay, he was a stick in the mud. And I did marry him for his money. But we did really like each other.”

“Why did he feel the need to hide his gender orientation?” Mrs. Sperling asked.

“I don’t know,” Bistler said. “I really don’t. I think it was his family. Maybe it was something about the gallery. I don’t know. I didn’t really care. I just didn’t want to be poor and Josh totally understood that.” She sniffed. “Not having any sex pretty much sucked but I really did like Josh. We had a lot of fun joking about my affairs.” She sank into herself. “I’m sorry but I did lie about kicking him out. We really did decide it was time. Both of us. Truth be told, I think Josh was going to come out officially. He didn’t say so, but we did agree that it was time for the split. Really.”

Mrs. Sperling sat up straight and listened. “What was that?”

“What was what?” Bistler’s eyes darted towards the hall to the bedrooms.

“I heard movement.”

“Oh that. Um. We’re, uh, having a problem with rats. I’ve had the exterminators out at least three times this month already. They probably came in with some of the street people we’ve been having problems with lately.” Bistler smiled weakly.

“Yes, that would account for it. One other question, Ms. Bistler. What does the name Kyle Hoffman mean to you?”

As Bistler thought, she calmed down.

“It does sound familiar. Wait. He was at the funeral. I suppose he knew Josh, although it’s hard to imagine. Josh was real big on appearances, and Hoffman didn’t dress real well.”

“How?”

“His suit didn’t fit, for one thing. It was tight in the shoulders, baggy at the waist, and the pants were too short, which was really dreadful because he was wearing white socks.” She let out a nervous giggle. “Can you imagine wearing white socks with a suit?”

Mrs. Sperling didn’t answer. She was in another daze, trying to catch some wisp of a thought.

She sighed. “Lost it.” She shook her head. “Well, Ms. Bistler, once again you have been very helpful. Thank you very much.”

Once again, Ramona Bistler was only too glad to get rid of us.

As we walked back to the De Ville, Mrs. Sperling stumbled in front of Bistler’s Lincoln. She righted herself and continued on. I helped her and Eleanor into her car and drove off.

“Another planned trip?” I asked.

“Trip?”

“In front of Bistler’s auto.”

Mrs. Sperling cleared her throat. “Yes. It was just as I thought. The engine was still warm, and there is no sun shining. Ms. Bistler has just returned from somewhere. She was not just leaving.”

“What made you think that?”

“She had her cigarettes out, and her lighter. I heard her tamping the pack quite frequently as she dug one out. She wasn’t tamping a fresh pack as a prelude to putting it in her case. That’s a different sound altogether. Nor did I hear her digging through her purse, or fidgeting with it, as she did with nearly everything else within reach.”

“She didn’t have her purse.”

“Which is what I guessed. I believe most women who are about to leave the house keep their purses quite near. But it’s not an entirely safe assumption. It could have been she hadn’t gotten that far yet. That’s why I checked the car. If she had been going out again, I don’t think she would have had time to leave it elsewhere and still have her cigarettes in reach. She seems to keep her case with her.”

“Like a security blanket. About that rat you heard…”

“It was no rat unless they’ve taken to wearing rubber-soled shoes.”

“He, or maybe she, was down the hall in one of the bedrooms.”

“Did you see anything?”

“No. But she looked directly there when you started hearing things.”

“You’ve made a reasonable deduction. The question now is who was back there?”

“Can I make a stab at another deduction?”

“Most certainly.”

“Well, given the way she was acting when you called her a liar, how about a tall, young male with light-hair?”

“Brava. Now, who fits that description?”

“Hendricks. Hey. Maybe we’re onto something.”

“Not so fast. Glen Weir fits that description. Phillip DuPre fits that description.”

My heart sank. “Any of a thousand young men in L.A. fit that description. Even Gillian, that clerk from Devonaire, fits that description. Shoot. It looks like we’re back where we started from.”

“It only looks that way, dear. We’re getting closer with each new piece of information. Some of the pieces are even matching up.”

“For you, they may be. I’m totally confused. Where do we go now?”

“The Beverly Hills Police station. I need to speak to Sergeant Michaelson regarding the Hoffman murder, and perhaps get some references.”

Sergeant Michaelson was in and not at all surprised to find Mrs. Sperling asking about Kyle Hoffman’s death.

“It happened around four thirty. Hollywood says it’s pretty easy to tell what happened. Hoffman came home early from work, caught some young punks robbing his place, and they beat him to a pulp, probably just for the fun of it. Heaven only knows if we’ll ever get it solved. You know as well as I do that’s the kind of case that usually ends up in the pending file. Lab went over it real well. Whoever they were, they were smart enough to use gloves. Not a fingerprint there that didn’t belong.”

“Are they sure about the youths?”

“Yeah. That’s the odd thing about it. Officer Willoughby was the one who discovered the body.”

“He did? And he’s the one you don’t care for.”

“That’s him. He said Hoffman had pulled him over this morning near Stein’s gallery and told him he had a hot tip. Willoughby admits he probably should have notified me, but he was hoping to shine a little on his own.”

“Looking for a promotion, obviously, and a perfectly natural thing to do. What does he say happened?”

“He went to Hoffman’s door, heard suspicious noises inside and entered the apartment. Before he could identify himself, he was attacked by a strong youth with a ski mask on. During the struggle, the youth, and his companion escaped out the back of the apartment, down the fire escape. One of the windows in the bedroom was wide open. The lab boys didn’t find anything left behind.”

“Hm. Has the autopsy come back yet?”

Michaelson laughed. “Are you kidding? We lucked out with Stein. The coroner’s backed up to their butts this week. Considering what it looks like, they won’t put any priority on it. And I can’t blame them. They don’t have time. Their homicide men are doing the usual routine, bringing in the thugs, questioning the witnesses. The only person the landlady saw was Willoughby. She heard the struggle, but thought Hoffman was moving furniture around until Willoughby appeared and asked her to keep watch so as not to mess up any evidence in Hoffman’s apartment. According to Hollywood, she was pretty upset, and not really coherent.”

“This is pretty interesting. But somehow I feel confident that this is connected to the Stein murder.”

“Based on what? I have to agree with Hollywood. It was a couple of punks, probably doped up and after whatever they could get from Hoffman. It’s just coincidence that they happened to pick the guy who was building manager at a place another guy got killed. The Stein murder was a class act, a real sophisticated setup. This thing was brute force, pure and simple, and ugly. We both know more often than not, coincidences are just that.”

“You’re absolutely right, Sergeant. But I’m not budging from my position this time. Something doesn’t feel right about the account. What was missing?”

“Nothing that we can tell. Hoffman’s stereo and television were in the middle of the living room floor. Looks like they hadn’t gotten far when Hoffman caught them.”

“That is the likely conclusion. And the struggle took place where?”

“In a different part of the living room. Near the door. Hoffman was found flat on his back in front of the front window.”

“Another likely spot. Something is not right here. It’s almost too typical.”

“Hollywood sees it regularly. And we see it here too damned often. If you want to worry about it, Mrs. Sperling, fine. You’ve got the time. I don’t. Besides Stein, I’ve got a dead teenage girl they found off of Canon that I still haven’t identified. I’ve got a random shooting incident, and at least eight burglaries, and two robberies, and just to make life interesting three rape cases and a flasher who has taken to showing his wares in the library of all places. Have you ever tried to get an accurate description from a shook up old society broad?”

“Actually, I have. Sounds like a good place, though, with all those shelves to hide behind. If I get done with this Stein mess before you catch him, perhaps I’ll go in as a decoy. He won’t be able to show me a thing.”

Michaelson had to laugh. “But you won’t be able to describe him.”

“Height and stature, perhaps, if I hear enough. Have you gotten anything on him?”

“Sketchy. Tall, youngish, light hair, and big where it counts. That’s the only thing I can get them to agree on. He sure knows how to pick his victims. We’ve had a composite in there for a month, and he’s struck twice since then. You know what this one lady said? Composites never look like the real person. I asked her what changes we should make to improve this one. She couldn’t think of one. Another broad said the only thing she’d recognize was what he was showing, and if she hadn’t been so startled, she would have asked him to marry her.”

“Sounds gifted,” I snickered.

“Donna,” chided Mrs. Sperling in a good-natured tone, although I knew she meant it seriously. “I know the situation lends itself to lewd comments, but we needn’t make them. Well, Sergeant, I’m afraid I’ll have to leave you to your exhibitionist for the moment. Do think of me if you decide you could use a decoy.”

“I’ll put you on the list. At the top. I’ve had a lot of volunteers, but I think I’d trust you sooner than most of them.”

“Do you know if the Chief is in?”

“He went to some fundraising affair. I’ll leave him a message that you need a letter of recommendation for Hollywood.”

“That will be most kind of you, Sergeant. Donna, we’d best get going.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m right behind you.”

In the car, she directed me to a law office near Stein’s gallery.

“Why don’t you think Hoffman’s death was a coincidence?” I asked before we got there.

“A lot of reasons. One is something Ms. Bistler said, about Hoffman’s socks. I can’t think why it’s significant, but it seems like it must be. Another reason is that we know Hoffman was selling stolen artwork. The question is, where did he get it? He was doing it often enough that Phillip hoped to gain his confidence, yet why didn’t anybody notice any missing? It seems to me a sustained theft like that would have created some stir long before this. Furthermore, Phillip implied that he was not Hoffman’s only customer, and somebody was very anxious to dump some Niedemans on Dolores Carmine shortly after Stein’s death. That suggests quantity, making it harder to believe that the losses went unnoticed.”

“Could Michaelson be covering them up?”

“Not likely. It would be too easy for me to find out, and the sergeant is not that kind of person. He’s a very busy man, and he appreciates all the help he can get.”

“But you said you didn’t like the story itself.”

“I don’t. It’s too perfectly what one would expect to find. And the lab found absolutely nothing. That doesn’t make sense. Something almost invariably gets left behind, usually something useless in terms of finding the miscreants, but there is something. Not to mention the fact that these doped up punks were using gloves. Most of their kind are too unintelligent and too intoxicated to remember that. That’s the problem, too. These thugs do remember just enough times to make a coincidence probable. No. Sergeant Michaelson is not unjustified in his point of view. But he doesn’t have all of my information. I shall have to revise my report tonight.”

We arrived at the lawyer’s office right about then, but it took me several minutes to find a parking place. I finally had to settle for a public lot just off of Wilshire and Rodeo. We walked back to the office at a good clip.

That’s one thing about Mrs. Sperling. She doesn’t dawdle. She says it’s because at guide dog school the students are taught to keep up a good pace so as to keep up with the dogs. But when Eleanor starts looking winded, I say it’s because Mrs. Sperling walks fast.

Mr. Stein’s lawyer was a younger man, maybe in his mid-thirties. He wore a pin-striped suit, but he made it look stylish and trim. His name was Paul Grisom. He greeted us cordially and invited me to sit down with Mrs. Sperling.

“Mr. Grisom,” Mrs. Sperling said. “I understand you made out Mr. Joshua Stein’s will.”

“I handled all of Josh’s legal matters.”

“We’ve been given to understand that he left everything to his wife.”

“That is correct.”

“What is the likelihood of Mr. Stein’s relations fighting the will?”

“Minimal, at this point. For one thing, his parents are dead, and he had no siblings. For another, all his other relatives live in New York and are sufficiently well off so that an extended court case at this distance would not be worth it.”

“Would they have had much chance at succeeding, especially given that Mr. Stein was estranged from his wife?”

Grisom chuckled. “About an ice cube’s chance in hell. Josh revised his will to include Ramona Bistler three days after the separation papers were filed. They might get some mileage out of the sound mind clause, but in the long run, it wouldn’t be worth it, especially with the distance factor.”

“I see. Ms. Bistler’s attorney seemed to think there were fair to middling chances of the will be contested, depending on the family’s attitude towards Ms. Bistler.”

Grisom laughed full out. “Montoinne’d be thinking that. He’s a crafty shyster, alright. He’s into Bistler for the bucks, believe you me. I don’t think Josh’s relatives knew Bistler, and they wouldn’t have given a damn, anyway. Based on what Josh told me, of course.”

“Does Mr. Montoinne know this?”

“Who knows. I’d have to wait until a court case to find out. Why?”

“He seems to be keeping Ms. Bistler in the dark about a number of things.”

“You mean to put the brakes on her fooling around. That’s just playing it safe. I would’ve told her the same thing.”

“He also confessed to leading her to believe that her financial status was not as good as it is.”

“Of course he would. Money would be about the only thing that’d keep her out of every pair of pants that came along.”

“You don’t seem to have too high a regard for Ms. Bistler.”

“I didn’t like her at all. She was taking Josh for every cent she could get, and he was okay with it. I would drop hints every so often, but Josh didn’t give a damn. He liked having a wife, and if she wasn’t around that often, fine. I have good reason to believe she was his beard, if you know what I mean. Why he felt he needed to stay in the closet in this day and age, I have no idea. And for whatever reason, he wanted to be sure she’d be well off. Josh was a class A-one lulu, if you ask me. But what am I gonna do about it? I was only supposed to advise him on legal matters.”

“Do you know if Ms. Bistler knew the terms of the new will?”

“It’s possible. I have no way of knowing. It depends on when was the last time Josh spoke with her.”

“Which there is no way of knowing, and no way of asking her without tipping her off.”

“I take it you like her for Josh’s murder?”

“I don’t know at this point, Mr. Grisom. It would appear several people are involved in one way or another. I certainly can’t point the finger at anybody with the evidence I have.”

“It’s a tough one, from what I hear.”

“Speaking of that, had you heard any rumors about the gallery?”

“No. It was doing pretty well when Josh revised his will. It’s a pity Josh couldn’t leave his money to the gallery. He lived and breathed that place. I think it’s the only reason he didn’t give a damn about his wife being a money hungry slut. She looked nice at the obligatory parties, which Josh hated anyway.”

“Hm.” Mrs. Sperling mused for a moment. “What about other people Mr. Stein might have had conflicts with? I have heard he wasn’t on very good terms with a clothing designer named Devon.”

“That twit?” Grisom chuckled and shook his head. “If it was Devon that had turned up dead, then I might have had something for you. Josh could not stand him. Apparently, Devon is a spoiled baby, or so goes the local scuttlebutt. Constantly flying off the handle. Given Josh’s attitude, I’d believe it.”

“That is very interesting.” Mrs. Sperling mulled it over, then got up. “Well, Mr. Grisom, you’ve given me a few more things to think about. I appreciate your time.”

“Anytime, Mrs. Sperling.” He came around his desk and shook her hand. “I liked Josh, and it really ticked me off to see him being taken advantage of by that bitch. In some ways, I hope she did it and gets what she’s had coming to her for a long time.”

“Well, vengeance is not my job. Finding the truth is. Thank you, Mr. Grisom. You have been most cordial.”

Mrs. Sperling was lost in thought as we walked to the car.

“I have more evidence piling up against Ramona Bistler,” she complained as we got in. “And very little of it would hold water in court. There must be a connection somewhere. I keep thinking I’ve missed it. Oh. It’s too aggravating.”

“Where do we go in the meantime?”

“Are we in the neighborhood of Mr. Hendricks’ gallery?”

“Yes.”

“Oh no. I forgot to tell Sergeant Michaelson about him. On second thought, I don’t think we have enough against him to justify a search warrant.”

“You mean attacking me isn’t enough?”

“Not to look at his books. Hoffman had to be getting his prints from someplace. Perhaps Mr. Hendricks can point us in the right direction, seeing as though he had reason to bear a grudge against Mr. Stein.”

 

Anne Louise Bannon

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