G is for Gumshoe - Page 3/98

"Sure," I said. She gave me the address and since I didn't have anything else on the books, I said I'd be there within the hour. There didn't seem to be any particular urgency to the matter, whatever it was, but business is business.

The address she'd given me was in the heart of town, not far from my office, one of the older blocks of single-family residences on a quiet tree-lined street. A tangle of shrubs formed a nearly impenetrable wall that separated the property from street view. I parked out front and let myself in through a creaking gate. The house was a shambling affair, two stories of dark green shingle set sideways on a lot dense with sycamores. I climbed pale gray wooden porch steps still fragrant with a recent repainting. The screen was open and I moved to the front door and pushed the bell, surveying the facade. The house was probably built in the twenties, not elegant by any means, but constructed on a large scale: comfortable, unpretentious, once meant for the middle class-out of reach for the average buyer in the current real estate market. A house like this would probably sell for over half a million these days and then require remodeling to bring it up to snuff.

An obese black woman, in a canary-yellow uniform with white collar and cuffs, let me in. "Mrs. Gersh's out on the upstairs porch," she said, indicating a staircase directly ahead. She lumbered off, apparently trusting me not to lift any cut-glass knickknacks from the occasional table to the right of the entranceway.

I had a momentary glimpse of the living room: a wide painted brick fireplace flanked by built-in bookcases with leaded-glass doors, lots of cotton shag carpeting in a much-trampled off-white. Creamy-painted wainscoting ran halfway up the wall with a pale print wallpaper above, extending across the ceiling in an inverted meadow of wildflowers. The room was shadowy and cried out for table lamps. The whole house was muffled in silence and smelled of cauliflower and curry.

I went up. When I reached the first landing, I saw that a second set of stairs branched down into the kitchen, where I could see a kettle bubbling on the stove. The maid who'd admitted me was now standing at the counter, chopping cilantro. Sensing my gaze, she turned and gave me an idle look. I moved on up.

At the top of the stairs, a screen door opened onto a broad, flat porch ringed with wooden planters filled with bright pink and orange geraniums. The main street, two blocks over, ebbed and flowed with traffic noises as sibilant as the sea. Mrs. Gersh was stretched out on a chaise lounge, a plaid lap robe arranged across her legs. She might have been taking the air in a deck chair, waiting for the social director to advise her of the day's shipboard activities. She had her eyes closed, a Judith Krantz novel face-down on her lap. The branches of a weeping willow draped long, lacy limbs across one corner of the porch, which was dappled in shade.

The day was mild, but the breeze seemed faintly chilly up here. The woman was stick-thin, with the dead-white complexion of someone profoundly ill. She struck me as the sort of woman who, a hundred years ago, might have spent long years in a sanitarium with a series of misdiagnoses stemming from anxiety, un-happiness, laudanum addiction, or an aversion to sex. Her hair was an icy blond, harshly bleached, and sparse. Bright red lipstick defined the width of her mouth and she wore matching bright red polish on nails cut short. Her Jean Harlow eyebrows had been plucked to an expression of frail astonishment. Her eyes were defined by false lashes that lay against her lower lids like sutures. I judged her to be in her fifties, but she might have been younger. Disease is an aging process in itself. Her chest was sunken, with breasts as flat as the flaps on an envelope. She wore a white silk blouse, expensive-looking pale gray gabardine slacks, vivid green satin slippers on her feet.

"Mrs. Gersh?"

She was startled, eyes flying open in a blaze of blue. For a moment, she seemed disoriented and then she collected herself.

"You must be Kinsey," she murmured. "I'm Irene Gersh." She held out her left hand and clutched mine briefly, her fingers wiry and cold.

"Sorry if I frightened you."

"Don't worry about it. I'm a bundle of nerves.

Please. Find a chair and sit. I don't sleep well as a rule and I'm forced to catnap when I can."

A quick survey showed three white mesh lawn chairs stacked together in one comer of the porch. I lifted the top chair, carried it over to the chaise, and sat down.

"I hope Jermaine will have the presence of mind to bring us tea, but don't count on it," she said. She shifted into a more upright position, adjusting the lap robe. She studied me with interest. It was my impression that she approved, though of what I couldn't say. "You're younger than I thought you'd be."