G is for Gumshoe - Page 4/98

"Old enough," I said. "Today's my birthday. I'm thirty-three."

"Well, happy birthday. I hope I didn't interrupt a celebration."

"Not at all."

"I'm forty-seven myself." She smiled briefly. "I know I look like an old hag, but I'm relatively young… given California standards."

"Have you been ill?".

"Let's put it this way… I haven't been well. My husband and I moved to Santa Teresa three years ago from Palm Springs. This was his parents' house. When his father died, Clyde undertook his mother's care. She passed away two months ago."

I murmured something I hoped was appropriate.

"The point is, we didn't need to move here, but Clyde insisted. Never mind my objections. He was raised in Santa Teresa and he was determined to come back."

"I take it you weren't enthusiastic."

She flashed a look at me. "I don't like it here. I never did. We used to come for visits, maybe twice a year. I have an aversion to the sea. I always found the town oppressive. There's an aura about it that I find very dark. Everybody's so smitten with the beauty of it. I don't like the attitude of self-congratulation and I don't like all the green. I was born and raised in the desert, which is what I prefer. My health has deteriorated since the day we arrived, though the doctors can't seem to find anything wrong with me. Clyde is thriving, of course. I suspect he thinks this is a form of pouting on my part, but it's not. It's dread. I wake up every morning filled with debilitating anxiety. Sometimes it feels like a surge of electricity or a weight on my chest, almost overwhelming."

"Are you talking about panic attacks?"

"That's what the doctor keeps calling it," she said.

I murmured noncommittally, wondering where this was all going to lead. She seemed to read my thoughts.

"What do you know about the Slabs?" she asked abruptly.

"The Slabs?"

"Ah, doesn't ring a bell, I see. Not surprising. The Slabs are out in the Mojave, to the east of the Salton Sea. During the Second World War, there was a Marine base out there. Camp Dunlap. It's gone now. All that's left are the concrete foundations for the barracks, known now as the Slabs. Thousands of people migrate to the Slabs every winter from the North. They call them snowbirds because they flee the harsh Northern winters. I was raised out there. My mother's still there, as far as I know. Conditions are very primitive… no water, no sewer lines, no city services of any sort, but it costs nothing. The snowbirds live like gypsies: some in expensive RVs, some in cardboard shacks. In the spring, most of them disappear again, heading north. My mother's one of the few permanent residents, but I haven't heard from her for months. She has no phone and no actual address. I'm worried about her. I want someone to drive down there and see if she's all right."

"How often does she usually get in touch?"

"It used to be once a month. She hitches a ride into town and calls from a little cafe" in Niland. Sometimes she calls from Brawley or Westmorland, depending on the ride she manages to pick up. We talk, she buys supplies and then hitchhikes back again."

"She has an income? Social Security?"

Mrs. Gersh shook her head. "Just the checks I send. I don't believe she's ever had a Social Security number. All the years I remember, she supported the two of us with housework, which she did for cash. She's eighty-three now and retired, of course."

"How does mail reach her if she has no address?"

"She has a post office box. Or at least, she did."

"What about the checks? Has she been cashing those?"

"They haven't showed up in my bank statement, so I guess not. That's what made me suspicious to begin with. She has to have money for food and necessities."

"And when did you last hear from her?"

"Christmas. I sent her some money and she called to thank me. Things were fine from what she said, though to tell you the truth, she didn't sound good. She does sometimes drink."

"What about the neighbors? Any way to get through to them?"

She shook her head again. "Nobody has a telephone. You have no idea how crude conditions are out there. These people have to haul their own trash to the city dump. The only thing provided is a school bus for the children and sometimes the townspeople raise a fuss about that."

"What about the local police? Any chance of getting a line on her through them?"

"I've been reluctant to try. My mother is very jealous of her privacy, even a bit eccentric when it comes right down to it. She'd be furious if I contacted the authorities."