mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Eighteen

“Why me?” Glen asked piteously when Mrs. Sperling presented him with her plan.

“Because of those of us immediately concerned with this case, only you and Phillip DuPre have not been seen by Mr. Gonzagos. Phillip is busy, and has already been in two fights. It’s your turn to do some work. After all, you were the one who got me involved when you purchased that forgery.” Mrs. Sperling was being unbearably reasonable.

“I’m no good at fighting,” sighed Glen.

“Phil isn’t either,” I said.

“Here is the address.” Mrs. Sperling handed him a piece of paper. “Go straight there. We’ll be waiting for you at the Beverly Hills police station.”

Glen left with all the enthusiasm of a former hippie signing up for selective service. I took a deep breath and looked at Mrs. Sperling.

“He’s awful scared,” I said. “Think he’ll be able to pull it off?”

“I wouldn’t have sent him if I didn’t.”

The phone rang and I went ahead answered it.

“Donna, just the person I want to talk to,” said Phillip’s merry voice.

“Is… Um… Your video cast?”

“Yep. The producer is haggling it out with the agents. How does dinner and a movie sound tonight?”

“How does waiting around for the boss to finish her dinner sound? Mrs. Sperling is booked to go to friends. I’m driving.”

“Hm. Let me think about this. Where’s she dining?”

“At the Delgados, at six-thirty.”

“Okay. Leave it to me. But fear not. I shan’t distract you from your duties.”

“You’d better not. I’ve got to get going. Mrs. Sperling has an appointment with Sergeant Michaelson in a little bit.”

“Fine. See you tonight.”

I hung up, wondering.

At the police station, I was a little surprised to see Officer Willoughby waiting with Sergeant Michaelson.

“He’s here, Mrs. Sperling,” said the sergeant.

“Officer Willoughby, I truly appreciate your taking your personal time to come in and talk to me.”

“My pleasure, ma’am.” He was lying through his teeth about that one. But then, considering what shift he worked, I couldn’t really blame him.

“As I believe the sergeant told you, there were a couple points about Wednesday’s incident that I believe the Hollywood police confused. Perhaps if you could tell me exactly what happened in your own words.”

“Well, as I was ending my shift, Hoffman came up to me and told me he knew something about the counterfeiting that had been going on at the Stein gallery. I thought it might be important, so I agreed to go over to his house later that afternoon, after I’d gotten some sleep, and he’d gotten off work. Now here’s where I goofed. I should have told Sergeant Michaelson about it, but well, I didn’t ’cause I wanted to be a hero.”

“That’s perfectly understandable. Do go on.”

“Well, I got there, and knocked on the door. That’s when I saw the landlady coming from the back. Then I heard this thud, like something falling over, and a groan. So I busted the door in. I was about to identify myself when this huge kid in a mask came at me. He had a friend a little to the back, also masked.”

“How did you know your attacker was a young man when he was masked?”

Willoughby squirmed. “I-I don’t know. You just do sometimes. I guess he sounded young.”

“Ah. That would be it. Please, continue.”

“Well, we grappled a bit. I landed a good one on his jaw, but he took it well. He came back even harder, and knocked me up against the wall. That’s when he and his friend ran for the back. I went after, but I didn’t get there fast enough. The last I saw of them, they were going down the fire escape. I went back into the front room, and there was Kyle under the front window.”

“What did you do then?”

“I checked him and he was gone. Then I went downstairs and called Hollywood from the landlady’s place. I figured I’d better not disturb anything in Kyle’s place.”

“How well did you know Mr. Hoffman?”

“I might have seen him around, but I never really spoke with him until that morning.”

“I see. Well, thank you, Officer. You’ve been most kind.”

“That’ll be all, Willoughby,” said Michaelson. He did not like the situation.

“Oh, there you are!” Glen came up, cardboard tube in hand. “I got it. It sure looks real.”

He pulled a HN6, or what looked like one, out of the tube. Mrs. Sperling sniffed.

“Excellent, Glen, you’ve done it again,” she announced.

“Huh?” Glen grimaced.

“Be seeing you folks,” said Willoughby, leaving.

We ignored him.

“You mean it’s another fake?” groaned Glen.

“Quite so. What happened?”

“I got there, and I told him I wanted a HN6. He said he had one. He asked how I found him. I said Kyle Hoffman sent me. He said Kyle ought to know. I looked at the print, and bought it.”

“So we can eliminate Mr. Gonzagos, except as the artist behind the counterfeits.” Mrs. Sperling was pleased.

“But how?” I asked.

“Our mysterious fair-haired boy had real ones to sell. Mr. Stein only had fakes. Therefore, all of Mr. Stein’s genuine serigraphs had already been exchanged, long ago, I would expect. Mr. Stein had recently obtained a new set of serigraphs, which is why Glen was able to get one. And those, too, were exchanged, with Mr. Gonzagos receiving the payment Wednesday, and deciding to go to visit his family with the cash while he had it. Then Dolores got a set of genuine Niedemans from a friend of Mr. Gonzagos, who knew nothing of him. Ergo, Mr. Gonzagos merely prints the serigraphs, for which he receives cash, and nothing else. Even if he knew Mr. Stein existed, and vice versa, which I seriously doubt, Mr. Gonzagos would have no reason to kill Mr. Stein, as he represented a form of income.”

“But what about Hoffman?” asked Sergeant Michaelson.

“You know Mr. Gonzagos didn’t kill Mr. Hoffman,” Mrs. Sperling replied. “Besides, Mr. Gonzagos referred to Mr. Hoffman in the present. It would appear Mr. Gonzagos does not yet know Mr. Hoffman is deceased.”

Michaelson shifted. “I suppose. But we still don’t have the evidence, and I still don’t like it.”

“I don’t blame you, Sergeant. It’s very disheartening. However, we cannot ignore the truth because we wish it were otherwise. The evidence is coming. It’s simmering on the back burner, so to speak, and the best I can do is let it find its own way out. I trust a good night’s rest will do it. In the meantime, you know what to do.”

“Oh, Mrs. Sperling, you wanted me to remind you about the bird,” I suddenly added.

“Oh, yes. Thank you, Donna. Sergeant, what became of the bird we found in Mr. Stein’s studio? It was a parakeet, was it not?”

“Yeah, a green one. One of the lab boys took it home for his kid. As far as I know, it’s alive and well.”

“Good.”

“Sergeant!” A young female clerk came up with a small piece of paper. “Hollywood called. They said you might want to know. Central recovered Kyle Hoffman’s van this morning near Union Station.”

Michaelson frowned. “I didn’t know it was stolen.”

“Neither did Hollywood. But Central said it had been hot-wired.”

“Sergeant,” interrupted Mrs. Sperling. “Would you please obtain a list of the van’s contents for me? There could be something significant.”

“Certainly,” he said.

“Thank you, Sergeant. Glen, you’d better leave that print here as evidence. I’ll see you back at the house.”

“Sure.” Glen dropped the tube and hurried out.

Mrs. Sperling and I followed at a more relaxed pace.

“That’s enough of this for today,” she sighed. “I’m going to forget about it, and rest. I’ve been working it too hard, that much is obvious.”

“I thought you said it was critical last night.”

“It is very critical, which is why I’ve overworked it. It happens to all of us sometimes, and the fastest way to get it done is to lay it aside for a while and forget it. The Delgados’ invitation is most timely.”

We went home, first, and Mrs. Sperling answered a few letters to friends while I cleaned my room. Mrs. Sperling and I didn’t change for dinner. It was to be a casual affair. At six-fifteen, I brought the De Ville around.

The Delgados are usually pretty cool about letting me hang around when they are entertaining Mrs. Sperling. But Mrs. Delgado’s mother had invited herself, and she isn’t quite so liberal. So after letting Mrs. Sperling and Eleanor off, I took the car around back and hung out in the kitchen with the cook and the butler, when he wasn’t serving dinner. They were both busy and gossiping amongst themselves, which left me a little out of things. They tried to include me, but I just wasn’t interested in the affair Mrs. Jones’ butler was having with Mrs. Smith’s gardener.

Around seven, someone knocked at the back door. Mimi, the cook, went and got it.

“Well, Mr. DuPre!” she said with pleased surprise. “What brings you back here?”

“Delilah Sperling’s chauffeur,” Phil answered. “We’re sharing a box dinner in the car. Would you be so kind as to let us know when Mrs. Sperling wants us?”

“Sure.” Mimi looked at me as if she couldn’t wait to tell the butler.

“Don’t worry about interrupting anything,” I told her as I left. “It’ll just be a friendly affair.”

Phil grinned as he swept me out the rest of the way.

“You haven’t eaten yet, I hope,” he said.

“Mimi was going to fix me a plate after the others were settled.”

“Perfect.” Phil got a picnic basket and a bottle of wine from the Maserati. “Why don’t we dine in the De Ville? It’s got more room.”

“I hope Mrs. Sperling doesn’t mind.”

“How is she going to know?”

“She’ll find a way.”

“I’ll take responsibility. If she doesn’t accept that, then I’ll have to hire you as my chauffeur.”

“Hm.” I unlocked the car, then opened the back door. “I must be nuts climbing into a back seat with you.”

I wasn’t really. Dinner came out of a basket that Phil had gotten from a restaurant. There was pate, and endive and spinach salad, then creamy vegetable soup, potatoes Lyonnaise, fresh steamed broccoli, and veal aux fines herbes provencal. He’d also picked up some vintage Chandon, brie and white chocolate chunk cookies from Trader Joe’s, a local discount wine and gourmet food store. Phil has a definite cheap streak. We ate, then cleared dishes and snuggled.

One factor we didn’t count on was that it had been a long week of late hours and early mornings for both of us, and that sitting in a nice warm car does induce drowsiness. I’m not sure when Phil dozed off. I know I’d been asleep for some time when Mimi came banging on the windows. Phil started and cussed. I yawned and blinked.

“She’s ready,” yelled Mimi.

“Who?” I grumbled. “Oh, damn!” I shook the remaining sleep from me.

Phil was already outside the car with the picnic basket. I crawled out.

“I’ll see you over at Aunt Delilah’s.” He kissed me and was gone.

I got in the driver’s seat and brought the De Ville around front. Mrs. Sperling talked with Mrs. Delgado on the drive. I got out and held open the back door. Eventually, they said goodnight, and Mrs. Sperling put Eleanor in the back seat.

“I hope your company wasn’t too bad,” she said as I opened the front passenger door.

“It was very pleasant.” I hurried around to my side.

“It was?” Mrs. Sperling got in, shut the door, then sniffed. I shut my door and busied myself with getting my seat belt buckled and the car started. “I can imagine it was very pleasant. I was wondering why you hadn’t found Mimi and Engle dreadful bores.”

“He surprised me, and after he went to all that trouble…”

“I had a feeling he would. You seem to have dined well.”

“I hope you don’t mind. We were very careful.”

“Why should I care? Eleanor has her paws all over that back seat all the time. What difference is a little food going to make? You’ve been doing an excellent job of keeping this car up, anyway. I’m sure I’d be the last person to notice a stain.”

I giggled. “So there’s no reason to bother you about the salad oil all over the seat.”

“The what?”

“Just teasing.”

Mrs. Sperling laughed.

“I wouldn’t try to put anything past you, anyway,” I said. “There’s no way I could get away with it.”

“That may or may not be encouraging.”

As he promised, Phil was waiting outside when I pulled into the driveway.

“Hi, Donna. Hello, Aunt Delilah.” He dutifully kissed Aunt Delilah’s cheek while I put the De Ville in the garage. “I just stopped by to visit with Donna after she got off duty.”

“After you already spent the evening with her?” Mrs. Sperling asked, and opened the back door.

“I told you she’d find out.” I walked past Phil into the house.

“It was worth a try,” Phil replied.

“Then next time I would recommend cold food and something with a less distinctive smell than fines herbes.” Mrs. Sperling smiled. “Is Glen home?”

“Yeah,” Phil answered. “He drove in just as I did.”

“Good. Donna, would you please put the burglar alarm on? I’m going to bed.”

I was stopped by a series of bloodcurdling screams.

Anne Louise Bannon

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