“Well, it’s very plain,” I said, nervously. “Do you want size?”
“Judging from the echoes, I’d say approximately four hundred square feet.” Mrs. Sperling answered. “Glen?”
“Uh, yeah, close to that.” Glen was trying not to panic.
“Okay.” I swallowed. “On the wall opposite to us is an old camp cot with a six-inch-thick mattress, all made up perfectly with a dark green army blanket. The wall next to the street has three windows, all open, and there’s a birdcage and parakeet next to the center one. There’s bird seed all over the place. There’s a door in the wall facing the windows, and all sorts of shelves with pictures in them. Behind you is a desk with tons of papers on it, and more bird seed, et cetera.”
“Interesting,” murmured Mrs. Sperling.
“In the center of the room,” I continued. “Are two long tables like you find in school multi-purpose rooms. On the furthest one is a flat wooden box with screens…”
“A silk screening apparatus,” Glen cut in.
“So I surmised,” answered Mrs. Sperling. “Are the inks there also?”
“Six or seven jars of them,” I said. “And the previously mentioned serigraph hanging to the right of the box. The, uh, body is lying between the two tables. The nearer one has several frame pieces, more papers and a hot plate on it, and what looks like left-over bread on a paper plate.”
“Describe the body.”
“The body?” I balked. “It’s a man, and he’s real red.”
“Carbon monoxide poisoning.” Mrs. Sperling nodded. “What is he wearing?”
“Would you look again at the body and give me a more accurate description?”
Gulping back all sorts of obscenities, I did as I was asked.
“Alright. He’s wearing dark brown high-waisted pants, brown like rich soil, blue, tan and yellow paisley big shirt, paisley is like a bent over teardrop shape, brown suspenders, a brown tweed sloppy cardigan, black socks and brown loafers.”
“There’s something wrong there.” Mrs. Sperling frowned. “But I can’t think what.” Motioning Eleanor forward, she moved about the room, sniffing discreetly.
Sirens approached as Hoffman wandered in.
“Cops are on their way,” he announced needlessly. He glanced at Mrs. Sperling, then whispered to Glen and me, “What’s she doing?”
“Investigating, Mr. Hoffman,” Mrs. Sperling said, not stopping. “It is my metier, much like an artist’s is painting, or Mr. Stein’s was this gallery. When did you get here this morning?”
“Me?” he almost yelped. “Uh, about nine or so. I went straight to the roof. Repairs, you know.”
Hoffman nervously chuckled. “Good joke.”
“Joke?” Mrs. Sperling turned, then softly laughed herself. “I suppose it was a witticism, albeit unconscious.”
“Yeah.” Hoffman grinned without understanding.
“Well, hello, Mrs. Sperling,” said a new voice.
“Sergeant Michaelson,” Mrs. Sperling exclaimed warmly.
He stood in the doorway, with a uniformed officer behind. The sergeant was average height, good-looking in a domesticated sort of way, with soft brown receding hair, light freckles, and a medium-priced grey suit.
“You don’t usually show up this soon,” Michaelson continued.
“We found the body,” replied Mrs. Sperling.
“That’s convenient.” Michaelson smiled. It was evident that these two were greater friends than rivals. Michaelson looked around. “I’m assuming that nothing’s been touched or moved?”
“No. We found the body rather quickly, and I immediately put Mr. Hoffman to work phoning you. He just returned and hasn’t left the doorway beyond letting you in.”
“Good.” Michaelson sighed. “So, where’s the body?”
“Between the tables,” said Mrs. Sperling.
Michaelson knelt over the body. “Let’s see. We have a Caucasian male, approximately five ten in height, hundred and sixty pounds, medium brown hair. Distinct red color suggests CO poisoning. Been dead anywhere from twelve to twenty-four hours. Rigor’s passed off. I can’t tell you any more until the coroner’s had a shot at him.” Michaelson straightened. “Maybe you could tell me a few things.”
“Such as?” Mrs. Sperling cocked her head at him curiously.
“Who is he?”
“I believe Mr. Joshua Stein, the owner of this gallery, or at least the business. The building itself, I presume, is owned by Mr. Hoffman’s employer.”
“Hoffman?” Michaelson asked.
“Yeah, that’s me.” Hoffman gulped and stepped forward. “I got charge of this building.”
Michaelson got out his notebook. “Did you know Mr. Stein?”
“Yeah. That’s him on the floor.”
“Do you know the next of kin?”
“Uh, shit. I guess that’s his wife, only they’re splitting.”
“They are?” Asked Mrs. Sperling.
“Well, she’ll know the rest of the family,” Michaelson said. “How did you find the body?”
“I didn’t.” Hoffman pointed at Glen. “He did. He said Josh was counterfeiting.”
“Glen said no such thing,” interrupted Mrs. Sperling. “He didn’t even complete the suggestion that we’d caught Mr. Stein in the act. I find it odd that you automatically drew that conclusion.”
“Well, I…” Hoffman gulped. “I don’t know. I guess I’d heard it before. Yeah. You know, rumors and stuff. He’s got the stuff here for it.”
“I can think of many good reasons why a gallery owner would keep silk-screening equipment. Mr. Stein does happen to be missing drying racks, a necessary accoutrement.” Mrs. Sperling pronounced that last word with a perfect French accent.
Michaelson turned to her. “So you’re implying that somebody is setting this Stein up?”
“It would appear so.” Mrs. Sperling indicated the hanging print. “We came down here because we needed to confront Mr. Stein about a counterfeit version of this serigraph that he sold to Glen. Mr. Hoffman let us in, and Mr. Stein was discovered. Can you tell if he was moved after death?”
“I can’t say for sure until the coroner sees him, but I’d give pretty good odds.” Michaelson squatted between the tables again. “There’s several squashed bird seeds around him, leaving treads. Then there’s what probably killed him, namely the CO. Best way to get that is in a closed garage with a car running. I can’t see any way to get a car in here. And look at this. He’s got a nasty knock on the back of his noggin. Had to have occurred before death. He wouldn’t have that nice red color from breathing bad air otherwise.”
“Therefore, an obvious indication of cold-blooded murder.” Mrs. Sperling nodded sadly. “Someone banged poor Mr. Stein over the head, then left him in a closed room with an automobile running, then brought him back here. Is there any sign of the lock being forced?”
Michaelson went over and checked the door. “Nope.”
“Then the killer had keys.”
Hoffman’s eyes widened in fear. “Shit! It was an accident! I think. It wasn’t me! I was Josh’s best friend.”
“Mr. Hoffman,” Mrs. Sperling said soothingly. “Keys can be duplicated very easily, and locks can be forced without visible outward signs. There is also the possibility that the killer gained access from Mr. Stein, himself, and used his keys. You will let me know what you find, won’t you, Sergeant?”
“Naturally, Mrs. Sperling,” replied Michaelson.
Mrs. Sperling ordered Eleanor forward, and Glen and I followed her back to the car.
“Where to, Mrs. Sperling?” I asked as I opened the door for her.
She gave me an address that I put it in my maps app. It was in Hollywood, on Melrose Avenue, but east of the main shopping neighborhood.
“What is this place?” asked Glen as I pulled into the traffic.
“A studio belonging to an old friend,” replied Mrs. Sperling. “She’s knowledgeable about counterfeiting and familiar with the current people in the racket. Perhaps she’ll know who’s behind our forgery.”
“That’s right,” I said. “Those missing drying racks. But the picture was hanging. Isn’t that good enough?”
“Drying racks are used in the serigraph process to dry the several copies between the application of each color,” Mrs. Sperling explained.
“Well, if he’s doing them one at a time,” I countered.
“That’s hardly economical, but possible, which is why it’s not conclusive evidence of a frame, if you’ll pardon the pun. I did fail to mention that the real clincher is that the picture hanging up to dry was a genuine commemorative serigraph.”
“A real one?” Glen gaped. “That’s totally stupid.”
“I suspect the killer made a mistake,” said Mrs. Sperling. “Whether or not it will be the one that catches him, or her, remains to be seen.”
The block where Mrs. Sperling’s friend was located was lined on both sides by parked cars. I had to circle it twice to find an opening for the DeVille. Finding a parking place was easier than finding the address. It was a tacky little gallery in a block of stores trying to imitate the trendiness further west down the street.
The little shop was dusty and crowded with framed pictures stacked along the walls, and five V-shaped bins filled with Saran-Wrapped posters. Jingle bells on the door announced our arrival. As the bells died out, silence layered everything like the dust. Then, from behind a doorway curtained off by faded batik gauze, came a rustling sound. Glen started.
“Rats!” he hissed.
“In some ways,” replied Mrs. Sperling.
A door slammed, wood scraped, and something fell. An elderly female voice cursed with the vehemence of a high schooler and a vocabulary that could have taught an ex-con something. More scraping and struggling, more cursing, then a soft shuffling announced the woman’s arrival.
It was impossible to guess at her age beyond old. She wore her long grey hair straight and parted down the middle and wrapped with a faded red bandana headband. Her face was as wrinkled as it was tanned. A faded batik shirt covered small breasts that sagged from years without a bra. Her dirty jeans were still tight across a tiny rump. She was about average height, her eyes were bright and she smiled as easily as she swore.
“Delilah, you old bitch!” she exclaimed with obvious delight. “What the fuck are you doing out of your capitalist nirvana?”
“Searching for information, as usual.”
“And not about the revolution.”
“As usual.” The old woman rolled her eyes skyward, then peered at Mrs. Sperling. “But what? It’s got to be something criminal, you old bitch. It’s not like you to inquire about lawful pursuits.”
“About your former life, dear.”
“Your current lifetime. Your former career, in particular, some of your old colleagues, with whom I believe you are still in touch?”
“Fuck, yes.” The woman sulked. “Shit. At least, you don’t make Shirley MacLaine jokes. But I’ve got details verified by historians. Details I have no other way of knowing.”
“Yes, dear, I’ve seen the evidence. Interesting, but not conclusive. Still, if you’ll allow me to pick your brain over lunch, we’ll listen to some of your stories.”
“Lunch, eh?” Her smile got even wider. “It pains me to say this, but you capitalist piss-ant bastards do know how to eat. Let me lock up.”
We were on our way in minutes. Mrs. Sperling introduced us in the car. Her friend was Dolores Carmine. Whether or not that was her real name was anybody’s guess. Mrs. Sperling didn’t question it out loud, but I could tell she had her reservations.
I was directed west to an attractive eatery in the trendy neighborhood. The clientele was such that Dolores didn’t stand out at all. Nor did Mrs. Sperling in her expensive tailored suit. The hostess seemed more amused by Eleanor than ruffled, although we did have to wait several minutes before a table large enough to accommodate her and we four humans was found.
Interrogating Dolores proved to be a delicate, time-consuming process. Her mind wandered constantly. Worse yet, Glen was fascinated by her tales of past lives. With an eager audience, there was no stopping the aging hippie.
I have to admit, I found the talk interesting. I also enjoyed my fettuccine primavera. But I wondered what Mrs. Sperling wanted from Dolores Carmine. Mrs. Sperling seemed to be getting something. She dissected a grilled chicken, all the while listening intently. Every so often, between sword fights and romances on the Nile, she would ask about a different old friend of Dolores’. The reply was usually vague and led to yet another adventure.
We were all consuming white chocolate cheesecake when Mrs. Sperling asked the question that she really wanted answered.
“Dolores, among your friends in the artistic community,” she began.
“Van Gogh, you mean.”
“No, dear. This century, and lifetime, I might add. I know you are not engaging in any unauthorized copying, but you do have friends who are. If I were interested in work by a specific artist, could you tell me who would be involved in making copies?”
“Who the fuck do you want?”
“Oh, him. Hell, lots of people in that.”
“I want a good quality copy. One that could pass for the original commemorative serigraphs. It’s a very high-quality ink and paper, I might add.”
“Fred Gonzagos. The others, they’re just shit knock-offs. But Gonzagos, he’s a hell of an artist on his own. It’s the white capitalist pricks who keep his work from getting recognition, so he does copies. He’s the best silkscreen man in this town. No shit. You name it, he’ll do it for you. He even did a few lost Renoirs last summer for some tourists.”
“So he’s adept at lithographs and oils.”
“Right down to the fuckin’ signatures and numbers. He’ll be a hard bird to catch. Real spooky. And, Delilah, you know I won’t testify.”
“I have no intention of asking you.”
“What do you want him for?”
“I believe I may possess some of his work.”
“Delilah, you bitch, that ain’t all.”
Mrs. Sperling sighed. “Dolores, I can’t afford to let you scare him away. You must understand, I have no reason to suspect him, but he may be able to shed some light on a rather nasty murder in Beverly Hills. It does involve his work. You might suggest that a disappearance could make him look very bad.”
“Anybody but you.” Dolores shook her head. “It could be just racist bullshit again. But… Fuck, I wouldn’t have mentioned his name if I didn’t think you’d give him every chance. I’m counting on you.”
“I’m only interested in the truth.”
“You and the Tooth Fairy. Fred’s an okay guy. But this murder shit worries me. Just between us, I say he could be guilty. Most bastards who make copies are pacifists. Pricks, but non-violent. Fred usually is, too, except when he’s drunk. I don’t invite him to parties, and a lot of people I know won’t either. He wrecks too much. Fuckin’ near killed Tancy Greer last week.”
“Then I would say it’s not likely Mr. Gonzagos is behind this. It was definitely pre-meditated.” Mrs. Sperling dug through her purse. “Glen, will you summon the waiter? It’s time to settle the account.”