G is for Gumshoe - Page 72/98

"Maybe she's much younger than we thought."

"Not that much. She was nowhere near seventy. You saw her yourself."

I thought about it briefly. "Well, it doesn't make any difference as far as I can see."

"Of course it does! One way or the other, we'd be off by thirteen years!"

I disconnected my temper. There was no point in being irritated. "We don't have any way to verify the information," I said. "At least that I can think of. Leave it blank."

"I don't want to do that," she said stubbornly.

I'd seen her in this mood before and I knew how unyielding she could be. "Do whatever suits. It's your business."

I heard a key in the lock. The front door opened and Clyde came in, dressed in his usual three-piece suit. He was toting the cardboard carton I'd brought. He crossed to the couch, murmured a hello to me, and placed the box on the coffee table. Then he leaned over to kiss Irene's cheek, a ritualistic gesture without visible warmth. "This was on the front porch-"

"That's Irene's," I said. "I found it under Agnes's trailer and had it shipped up. It arrived this morning." I pulled the box closer and opened the top flaps, reaching down among the nesting cups, which were still swaddled in newspaper. "I wasn't sure if this was a good time or not, but these were just about the only things the squatters hadn't ripped off."

I unwrapped one of the teacups and passed it over to Irene. The porcelain handle had a hairline crack near the base, but otherwise it was perfect: pale pink roses, hand-painted, on a field of white, scaled down to child-size. Irene glanced at it without comprehension and then something flickered in her face. A sound seemed to rumble up from the depths of her being. With a sudden cry of revulsion, she flung it away from her. Fear shot through me in reaction to hers. Clyde and I both jumped and I uttered an automatic chirp of astonishment. Her scream tore through the air in a spiraling melody of terror. As if in slow motion, the cup bounced once against the edge of the coffee table and cracked as neatly in two as if it'd been cut with a knife.

Irene rose to her feet, her eyes enormous. She was hyperventilating: rapid, shallow breathing that couldn't possibly be delivering enough oxygen to her system. I could see her begin to topple, eyes focused on my face. She clawed at me as she fell, pitching forward in a convulsion that rocked her from head to toe. Clyde grabbed her as she went down, moving faster than I thought possible. He eased her back onto the couch and elevated her feet.

Jermaine thundered into the living room, a dish towel in her hand. Her eyes were wide with alarm. "What's the matter? What's happening? Oh my God…"

Irene's eyes had rolled back in her head and she jerked repeatedly, wracked by some personal earthquake that sent shock waves through her small frame. The acrid scent of urine permeated he air. Clyde peeled his jacket off and went down on his knees beside her, trying to restrain her so she wouldn't hurt herself. Jermaine stood by spellbound, twisting the dish towel in her big dark hands, making anxious sounds at the back of her throat.

Gradually, the spasm passed. Irene began to cough, a tight unproductive sound that made me ache in response. The cough was followed by a high-pitched wheeze that helped to mobilize me again. I put a supporting hand under Irene's right arm and shot Clyde a look. "Let's sit her upright. It'll make her breathing easier."

We hefted her into a sitting position, a surprisingly awkward maneuver given how light she was. She couldn't have weighed more than a hundred pounds, but she was limp and dazed, her eyes moving from face to face without comprehension. It was clear she had no idea where she was or what was going on.

"You want I should call emergency, Mr. Clyde?" Jermaine asked.

"Not yet. Let's hold off on that. She seems to be coming around," he said.

A fine layer of perspiration broke out on Irene's face. She reached for me blindly. Her hands had that clammy feel to them, like a still-animated fish in the bottom of a boat.

Jermaine disappeared and returned moments later with a cold, damp rag that she passed wordlessly to Clyde. He wiped Irene's face. She'd begun to make small sounds, a weeping, hopeless and childlike, as if she were waking from a nightmare of devastating impact. "There were spiders. I could smell the dust…"

Clyde looked at me. "She's always been phobic about spiders…"

I picked up the two halves of the teacup automatically, wondering if she'd seen something in the bottom. I half-expected one of those old dead spiders lying on its back, legs curled in against its belly like a blossom closing up at twilight. There was nothing. Meanwhile, Irene was inconsolable. "The paint ran down the wall in horrible streaks. The violets were ruined and I was so scared… I didn't mean to be bad…"