mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Seventeen

The tension was almost unbearable. Phil was meeting that day to cast the video, and I had no idea whether or not I had the job, or given our entanglement, whether I wanted it. Brooding wouldn’t help so I stomped into my bedroom and grabbed my tap shoes. On an impulse, I also grabbed a framed Harvey Edwards print I’d been thinking of hanging in my room.

I stomped into the T.V. room and tossed my shoes next to Glen’s stereo. The walls were covered with his art, mostly pictures of women, and two of his precious Niedemans. I took one down and replaced it with my Harvey Edwards.

It was a fair-sized room, with a wood floor, partially covered by an oriental rug. Along one wall was a series of bookshelves, and two windows. Pillows were scattered about, and there was a big pile in front of the T.V. located in a corner next to the bookshelves. Glen’s super system stereo, complete with digital turntable, radio, boosters, streaming computer and two four-foot-high speakers took up a good portion of the wall opposite the windows. Mirrored tiles had been stuck onto the adjoining wall in patches. A small stack lay on the floor next to it.

Glen had been taking down the tiles because he didn’t like them. I decided I was going to put them back up. I went over and stuck one in a hole. It stuck for about three seconds, then came tumbling out. I just barely caught it.

I sighed. I was going to have to get some glue. I’d ask my father. Dad knows all about all sorts of stuff like that.

I stomped over to the stereo, and got my phone connected. It took me a minute to find the song I wanted. While I was trying, I vented on the poor phone. I finally found the song, put it on pause, and put on my tap shoes.

I warmed up quickly. I wasn’t stressed enough to risk a pulled muscle. I rolled up the carpet, and slammed on the music. The beginning was slow, so I warmed up my ankles with toe taps.

I was ready when the main body of the song started. Facing the mirrors, I went into the relaxed time step. It was a routine I’d learned years and years before. I liked it because it had lots of stomping in it.

About a third of the way through the song, Glen appeared.

“Why are you dancing?” he asked.

“I’m tense about the video.”

“You’re going to ruin the floor with those.”

“I don’t care right now.” I made a mental note to get some masonite pieces to cover the floor when I was tap dancing. I paused for the section where the heavy stomping came in, accompanied by lots of fast shuffles.

Glen watched. Usually anything that isn’t completely modern doesn’t interest him. But I think he was impressed. He waited until the song was over. Breathing heavily, I turned the phone off.

“What was that?” Glen asked.

“‘Anything Goes’ by a genius named Cole Porter. It’s from the show by the same name.”

“I think I’ve heard of it. Where’s Mrs. S?”

“At the Braille Institute until one thirty. She’s giving Delsie Simmons an extended session.”

“Poor Delsie.” Glen started picking at one of the tiles.

“Don’t you touch those!” I snapped.

“I’ve been trying to get them down since I got here.”

“They’re going back up. I live here, too, and I reserve the right to put my influence in also.”

“But they’re awful. The person who put them up had no taste. You should have seen my room before I moved in.”

“Those tiles are practical. With this nice wood floor, and no furniture, I can practice my dancing. That’s why I need the mirror. We can make this room a little studio, and roll out the rug when we want to watch T.V.”

“That rug is going, too.”

“That rug is an antique and worth money.”

“Who’d want it? It’s ugly.”

“It’s a nice looking rug.”

Glen grimaced. “No, it isn’t. I was going to do this room up with director’s chairs to match the floor…”

“No chairs, unless we can fold them up. I need floor space.”

“But it’s totally ugly.”

“I happen to like it.”

“You have no taste.” Glen grinned with lofty airiness.

“I have excellent taste.”

“Not unless it’s mine.”

“Who are you, the arbiter of all taste?”

“Yes.”

I rolled my eyes, and sat down, stretching out.

“Well, Mr. Arbiter, keep in mind, you’re not the only one who lives here. If those tiles come down, and this room gets cluttered with furniture, there’s going to be hell to pay.”

“What are you going to do?”

I just grinned at him. Glen swallowed. I laughed.

He shrugged. “You mean do the room like a dance studio? Yeah, we could do that. It’d look totally rad.”

I took off my tap shoes. “I’d better get going. Mrs. Sperling sent me home to make a whole pile of phone calls.”

“Anything more on the murder?”

“I’m almost positive it was Bistler and Hendricks working together. We’ve just got to get the evidence.”

“How about my Niedeman?”

“I know somebody who’s selling them cheap.”

“Who?”

“Dolores Carmine.”

Glen’s face fell. “She’s out.”

“Speaking of her, Mrs. S. wants you to stick around today. She’s got a job for you.”

Glen shrugged. I went to make my calls.

The first was to the company that had employed Kyle Hoffman. I got handed around three times before I was able to ask my questions.

“This is Miss Browning,” I told Mr. Haggerty from personnel. “I’m calling to verify a credit application one of your employees made to us. His name is Kyle Hoffman.”

“Hoffman? He died two days ago.”

“Oh. Well, just so I can get the record straight, he was employed by your company to manage a building at this address.” I gave him the address of Stein’s gallery. “Is this right?”

“Yes. He’s been with us since July of this year.”

“You wouldn’t have his former place of employment, would you?”

“Let me pull up the file.” There was about a minute’s pause while Mr. Haggerty clicked the keys on his computer. He gave me the address, and the exact date of Hoffman’s departure from his former job and his date of hire there, which I wrote down.

“Thank you, Mr. Haggerty.”

“Um, Miss Browning, pardon me for asking, but your company isn’t going to make a loan to a dead man, is it?”

“I doubt it, Mr. Haggerty. It’d be very hard for him to pay it back. Thanks again.” I hung up fast.

I compared the address I’d written to the business card and smiled. My next call went through right away.

“Mr. Grisom, my name is Elizabeth Barrett, and I’m with Entertainment Plus. We’re a marketing firm for the entertainment industry, and I’m conducting a survey to help determine the mid-week activities of professional adults in the Los Angeles area. Would you mind answering a few questions for me?” I had written the speech down and gone through it with just enough boredom to suggest I’d made this call at least forty times already.

“I suppose.”

“Thank you, sir. I see you’re an attorney in the Beverly Hills area. May I ask your income range? Between thirty to forty thousand?”

“A hundred and fifty thousand last year.”

“Okay, that’s box D. Are you married right now?”

“Yes.”

“Is your wife employed also?”

“Self-employed.”

“Did you just quote me a combined income?”

“No. She’s pulling in another fifty thousand.”

“Okay. Now, could you tell me what you were doing last Wednesday night, the day before yesterday?”

“I was home with my wife.”

“Doing what?”

“Watching T.V.”

“And what were you watching?”

“I don’t remember. Something on P.B.S.”

“How about the Wednesday before that?”

“Oh, geez. What the hell was I doing? Oh. Yeah. Same thing, only I think we rented a movie.”

“Do you remember which one?”

“Uh. No. Sorry. I probably fell asleep halfway through it, anyway.”

“Alright. Is this a usual pattern, sir?”

“Yeah. Doris and I don’t go out much during the week.”

“And that answers my next question. Thank you very much for your time, Mr. Grisom.”

I wasn’t sure if it was necessary, but I called the local Bar Association, as Mrs. Sperling had requested. The information I got was pretty interesting.

“It was years ago,” I told Mrs. Sperling as we drove to Dolores Carmine’s. “And he’s maintained an excellent record since then.”

“Embezzling, eh?”

“But they were never able to prove it. The charges were dropped before it ever went to court. The lady at the Bar Association says she remembers the incident, and she thinks it might have been professional jealousy. She says Grisom’s a terrific lawyer, and not someone you want to be facing in a divorce trial.”

“Which perhaps explains Mr. Montoinne’s caution regarding Ms. Bistler.”

“That and he’s the jealous type.”

“And Grisom’s alibi is not very easily verified, or contested, for that matter. Relaxing at home is too common an occurrence. Sometimes a particularly strong lawyer can break the witness down, but not too often. We shouldn’t count on it.”

“The funny thing is, he didn’t sound flustered at all, or as if he even cared whether or not I knew. If they hadn’t told me about that embezzlement charge, I would have written him off, especially considering Hendricks and Bistler.”

Mrs. Sperling shook her head. “Don’t jump to conclusions, my dear. Something doesn’t quite fit, and it could be the fact that exonerates them. One must be very sure before fixing blame.”

I pulled into a parking space in front of Dolores’s Gallery. We got out and went in. For once, Dolores was in the front. She waited for us with an average sized man with strong Hispanic features, and a huge bushy moustache, and long fly-away hair.

“Here he is, Delilah. He got back in town Wednesday morning,” said Dolores.

Mrs. Sperling nodded. “Where have you been, Mr. Gonzagos?”

“In Mexico,” he answered defensively. “I got family in Mexico City.”

“Are you aware that your trip was rather poorly timed?”

“What you mean?”

“Mr. Gonzagos, the night you were last seen in Los Angeles, a man was murdered. He had been selling forgeries of prints done by the late artist, Hans Niedeman, forgeries I believe to be your work. If you arrived in back in town as Ms. Carmine here says, then you arrived just in time to be available for the murder of a second man who I believe to be the one who exchanged your prints for those of the first victim.”

“I don’t know nothing about no murders, lady.” Gonzagos was scared. “I get mad sometimes, but I don’t kill people.”

“I see.”

“Look, lady, you can say all you like, talk fancy and everything. But I don’t kill people.”

“What airlines were you on, Mr. Gonzagos?”

“Mexicana.”

“Very good, then. I might also add that the second victim was severely beaten in a manner that is suggestive of your drinking habits.”

Gonzagos eyes grew wide, and he darted out. I started after him, but Mrs. Sperling held me back.

“Now you done it, Delilah,” growled Dolores.

“I’m afraid so. I was hoping he would make an error in judgment, but that was not the one I had in mind. Obviously, I am still capable of making mistakes. That’s encouraging. Well, Dolores, thank you for getting him here.”

“Delilah, maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but he says he doesn’t know anything about sending a friend to me with some Niedemans to sell.”

Mrs. Sperling pondered this. “Be that as it may, it still doesn’t clear him, I’m afraid. Kyle Hoffman’s death is too coincidental.”

“Kyle Hoffman?” Dolores was shocked. “He’s dead?”

“He was killed Wednesday, beaten, as I said before. You knew him?”

“Of course. He’s been peddling hot art for a long time. I was beginning to think he was a fence, cause I couldn’t see how he could be getting it that often for that long without getting caught.”

“He may have been, but he wasn’t caught due to some massive stupidity on the part of his victim.”

“Must have been. Kyle’s not exactly smart himself.”

“Just extremely lucky. I’ll be taking my leave, now, Dolores. Keep well.”

“You, too, Delilah.”

Mrs. Sperling was pensive as we hit the street.

“Where to now?” I asked.

“Let’s check the security company, then we shall have to go home. You’ll need to think up an excuse to confirm Mr. Gonzagos’ flight with the airlines.”

“Okey-dokey.”

We got Eleanor into the car, and took off. Mrs. Sperling remained distant.

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

“Yes. I just can’t think what. There were two glaring mistakes in that room, two things that appeared to be as they should be, but were in reality signs of an inadequate intellect. I keep running over your description of the room, and each time I come across the bird, something in my head says there’s a problem with that.”

“Well, you don’t normally put birds next to open windows because they get sick from draughts.”

“Then we must determine why that one was there.”

“Where is it now?”

“That is a good question. Remind me to ask Sergeant Michaelson when we go to the station this afternoon.”

“I’ll try.”

At the security company, the man we wanted was in, and even better for us, working day shift at the desk. He showed us why. The cast on his leg extended to his knee.

“I was playing football with the kids over the weekend,” he explained.

“That sounds quite enjoyable,” replied Mrs. Sperling. “I wish I could hear more about it, but I’m afraid I don’t have the time. Regarding the night, or morning, that Mr. Stein was killed…”

“Yeah, last Thursday morning.”

“Did you see anything at all in the alley at any time?”

“No. I would have noted it if I had.”

“I’m not talking about anything suspicious necessarily. What about things that are normally there?”

“Mr. Stein’s Ferrari was there all night. And Hoffman’s van, but that’s always there off and on.”

“What times were Mr. Hoffman’s van there?”

“Just in the morning. He’s there a lot in the mornings.”

“Well, he was. Mr. Hoffman is no longer of this world, I’m afraid.”

“That’s too bad. He wasn’t a bad egg. And pretty handy, too. He fixed my air conditioner last summer. Say, you don’t think he saw something, and someone bumped him off to shut him up, do you?”

“It’s possible.” Mrs. Sperling lapsed again. “That may be the connection.” She woke up. “Thank you, sir. You’ve been very helpful.”

“Anytime, ma’am.”

Mrs. Sperling was almost prickly when we got back to the car.

“It’s almost there,” she grumbled. “It’s within reach. I just need a little more. I’m positive the evidence is there.”

“You know who the killer is?”

“I’m fairly certain I know who Hoffman’s killer is, and I suspect he may be behind Stein’s murder also. He’s perfectly alibied for it, so he didn’t actually do it. I just need a connection between him and Hoffman. It’ll probably be a very loose one. He’s very clever.”

“He is? He must have gotten a friend to help.”

Mrs. Sperling nodded.

“Are you sure the two killings are related?” I asked. “I mean the one was so perfectly staged, and the other so brutal.”

“It was far more clever than that.”

“It was?”

But Mrs. Sperling refused to elaborate.

At home, I called a friend of mine who’s a travel agent when she’s not auditioning. I had to beg, plead and practically crawl, but she relented and let me have the phone number I wanted. Mrs. Sperling listened with a great deal of amusement.

“They have a special number they use,” I explained. “If I don’t call that number, I’ll lose a lot of credibility.”

“I am aware of that. Good thinking.”

I took a deep breath and misrepresented myself for the fourth time that day.

“Hello, Mexicana?” I asked. “I need a check on a passenger list, please.”

“Just a minute.”

Muzak floated into my ear while I waited for the right person to answer their phone.

“Yes, may I help you?” a pleasant female voice answered.

“Hi. This is Dorothy Wordsworth from William’s Travel. I have a client here who claims he was billed for a round trip passage to Mexico City that he never purchased. Could you check your list and see if a Federico, or Fred Gonzagos was on a Wednesday night flight there, a week ago this Wednesday past, and returning this Wednesday morning.”

“We don’t have a flight leaving Los Angeles on Wednesdays.”

“He said Wednesday night. Could it have been early Thursday morning?”

“Yes, it could. One moment, please. Mr. Gonzagos was on board flight 212, leaving L.A.X. at twelve-twenty A.M. He returned the following Wednesday, on flight 111, arriving L.A.X. at ten-fifteen A.M.”

“Well, I guess my Mr. Gonzagos has been a victim of credit card fraud. Thank you very much.” I hung up fast.

Mrs. Sperling chuckled.

“That doesn’t let him off the hook,” I said.

“No. But I have one more way of checking him out. Would you go find Glen for me, please?”

 

Anne Louise Bannon

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