G is for Gumshoe - Page 15/98

"Can't you report 'em to the cops?"

Marcus shook his head. "Tried that. They vamoose the minute anybody shows up."

"Could there be a connection between Agnes's disappearance and their moving in?"

"I doubt it," he said. "She'd been gone a couple months by the time they got here. Somebody might have told them the trailer was empty. They never seemed to worry about her showing up. I know they've torn the place apart, but there's not much we can do."

I gave him my card. "This is my number in Santa Teresa. I'll be down here a couple of days seeing if I can get a line on her. After that, you can reach me at this 805 area code. Would you give me a call if she gets in touch? I'll try to check back with you before I leave town, in case you've heard from her. Maybe you'll think of something that might be of help."

Faye peered over his shoulder at the card I'd given him. "A private detective? I thought you said you were a family friend."

"A hired friend," I said. I had started back to my car when he called my name. I turned and looked at him.

"There's a sheriff's substation in Niland, right next to the old jail on First. You might check with the deputy. There's always a possibility she's dead."

"Don't think it hasn't occurred to me," I said. His gaze held mine briefly and then I moved on.

I headed back toward the township of Niland, 145 feet below sea level, population twelve hundred. The old jail is a tiny stucco structure with a shake roof and an ornamental iron wheel attached to the wooden porch rail. Next door, not ten feet away, is the new jail, housed in the sheriff's substation, also stucco and not much wider than the width of one door and two windows. An air conditioner hung out of a window around on the side. I parked out in front. A note was taped to the front door. "Back at 4:00 p.m. In emergency or other business talk to Brawley deps." Not a clue about how to contact the Brawley sheriff's department.

I stopped at a gas station and while the tank was being filled, I found a pay phone and checked the dogeared directory that was chained to the wall, looking up the telephone number of the Brawley sheriff's department. From the address listed, I had to guess it wasn't far from my motel on Main. In a quick call, I learned that Sergeant Pokrass, the deputy I should be talking to, was presently at lunch and would be back at one o'clock. A glance at my watch showed it was 12:50.

The sheriff's substation is a one-story stucco building with a red tile roof, located right across the street from the Brawley Police Department. There were two white sheriff's cars parked in the narrow lot. I went in through a glass door. A Pepsi machine dominated the corridor. To the left of the entrance was a closed door that, according to the sign, led to a courtroom. On the other side of the hallway were two small offices with an open door between them. The interior was polished brown linoleum, Formica countertops, light wood desks, metal file cabinets, swivel chairs. There were two deputies and a civilian clerk in sight, the latter on the telephone. The low murmur of conversation was underscored by the steady, low ratchet of the police radio.

Deputy Pokrass turned out to be a woman in her thirties, tall and trim, with sandy hair cut short, glasses with tortoiseshell rims. The tan uniform seemed designed for her: all function, no frills. There was very little animation to her face. Her eyes were a penetrating brown, rather cold, and her manner, while not actually rude, was on the abrupt side of businesslike. We didn't waste a lot of time on pleasantries. I stood at the short counter and filled her in on the situation, keeping my account brief and to the point. She listened intently, without comment, and when I finished she picked up the telephone. She called the local hospital, Pioneers Memorial, and asked for the patient billing and accounting department, her voice wanning only slightly in her conversation with someone named Letty on the other end. She pulled a yellow legal pad closer and picked up a pencil sharpened to a perfect point. She made a note, her handwriting full of angular down-strokes. I was sure that, even at the age of twelve, she'd never been the type to make a little happy face when she dotted an i. She hung up the phone and used a straightedge to tear off the strip of paper on which she'd written an address.

"Agnes Grey was admitted to Pioneers on January 5, through emergency after the paramedics picked her up outside a downtown coffee shop where she collapsed. Diagnosis by the admitting physician was pneumonia, malnutrition, acute dehydration, and dementia. On March 2, she was transferred to Rio Vista Convalescent Hospital. This is the address. If you locate her, let us know. Otherwise you can come back in and fill out a missing persons report. We'll do what we can."