G is for Gumshoe - Page 90/98

"It's hardly that simple," she said, "but yes, essentially…"

She had launched into an explanation of the particulars, but I was on my way out.

I drove to the board-and-care in a state of suspended animation. All I'd really wanted was corroboration of Bronfen's tale, and here I was with another possibility altogether. Maybe Agnes Grey and Anne Bronfen were the same person after all. I thumbed my nose in Dietz's general direction as I turned right on Concorde.

I parked the Porsche at the curb and got out. For once, there was no little twitch of the curtain as I pushed through the gate. I went up the porch steps and rang the bell. I waited. Several minutes passed. I moved over to the porch rail and peered toward the back of the house. At the far end of the driveway, I spotted a single-car garage. Attached to it was a lath house and a dark green potting shed with a big handsome padlock hanging open in the hasp.

Behind me, I heard the front door opening. "Oh, hi. Is that you, Mr. Bronfen?" I said, turning my attention back.

The man in the doorway was someone else-a frail old fellow with an air of shuffling indecision. He was thin and bent, his shoulders narrow, his fingers twisted with arthritis. He wore a much-washed plaid flannel shirt, thin at the elbows, and a pair of pants that came halfway up his chest. "He's out. You'll have to come again," he said. His voice was a pastel blend of raspiness and tremor.

"Do you have any idea what time he'll be back?"

"About an hour," he said. "You just missed him."

"Oh, gee, that's too bad. I'm the contractor," I said in this totally false warm tone I use. "I guess Mr. Bronfen's thinking about an addition to the shed out back. He asked me to take a look. Why don't I just go on out there and see what's what."

"Suit yourself," he said. He closed the door.

Heart thumping, I made a beeline for the backyard, figuring my time was going to be limited. Patrick Bronfen was not going to appreciate my snooping, but then, if I were quick about it, he'd never know. The shed was perched haphazardly on a concrete foundation that did a sort of zigzag between the single-car garage and the house. This looked like the sort of work that was done without permit and was probably not up to code. Given the slope of the side yard and the retaining wall at the property line, Bronfen probably should have had a team of civil engineers out here before he opened that first sack of Redi-Mix.

I removed the dangling padlock from the hasp and let myself in. The ulterior was probably eight by ten, smelling of loam, peat moss, and potting soil, overlaid with Bl and fish emulsion. There were no windows and the light level had dropped by more than half. I felt around in the gloom, trying to find a light switch, but apparently the shed wasn't wired for electricity. I groped through my handbag till I came up with a penlight and shone it around. The beam illuminated a large expanse of wall-mounted pegboard, hung with gardening tools. A mower leaned against the wall, its blades flecked with grass clippings. There was a six-foot workbench, its surface littered with clay pots, trowels, spilled potting soil, and discarded seed packs. Damp air clambered over my ankles and feet. Under the bench, I could see a gap in the rotting wood where a board had been pushed out.

To the right was an oblong wooden bin with a hinged lid, knee-high, the sort of unit where tools are stored. A square of newly cut plywood had been nailed across one end. Big plastic bags of bark mulch and Bandini 101 were stacked on top. One of the bags had a rip in the bottom and a trail of bark extended across the cracked cement floor. A pie-shaped wedge of track suggested that the bin had been dragged forward and then pushed back again. I thought about Agnes's torn knuckles and broken nails.

I lifted my head. "Hello," I said, just to check the sound level. The word was muffled, as if absorbed by the shadows. I tried again. "Hello?" No echo at all. I doubted the noise carried five feet beyond the shed. If I'd abducted a half-senile old lady, this would be a neat place to stash her till I decided what to do.

I balanced the penlight on the workbench and removed the twenty-five-pound bags from the top of the bin, stacking them to one side. When I'd cleared the lid, I opened it and peered in. Empty. I retrieved the penlight and checked the rough interior surface. The space was easily the size of a coffin and constructed so poorly that the air flow could probably sustain life, at least for a brief period. I ran the penlight from corner to corner, but there was no evidence of occupancy. I lowered the lid and restored the bags of mulch to their original positions. On my hands and knees, I checked the area around the bin. Nothing. I'd never be able to prove Agnes Grey had been here.