A is for Alibi Page 52

Grace was sitting on the doorsill, her head hanging down between her knees. She was shaking from head to foot and she'd started to weep. I helped her to her feet, easing open the apartment door.

"Lyle knew I was picking the stuff up, right?" I snapped at her. She gave me a haunted, pleading look.

"It couldn't have been him. He wouldn't have done that to me," she whimpered.

"Your faith is touching," I said. "Now sit. I'll be back in a minute.”

I went back to the basement stairs. The beam from the flashlight cut through the blackness. There was a second bulb at the bottom of the stairs and I pulled the chain. A flat dull light from the swinging bulb threw out a yellow arc that slowed to a halt. I turned off the flashlight. I knew which bin belonged to Mrs. Glass. It had been smashed open, the padlock dangling ineffectually where the lathing had been broken through. Cardboard boxes had been torn open, the contents strewn about in haste, forming an ankle-deep mess through which I picked my way. The emptied boxes all bore the name "Elizabeth," obligingly rendered in bold Magic Marker strokes. I wondered if we'd interrupted the intruder before or after he'd found what he was looking for. I heard a sound behind me and I whirled, raising the flashlight instantly like a club.

A man stood there staring at me with bewilderment.

"Got a problem down here?”

"Oh fuck. Who are you?”

He was middle-aged, hands in his pockets, his expression sheepish. "Frank Isenberg from apartment three," he said apologetically. "Did somebody break in? You want me to call the police?”

"No, don't do that yet. Let me check upstairs with Grace. This looks like the only bin that's been damaged. Maybe it was just kids," I said, heart still thudding. "You didn't have to sneak up on me.”

"Sorry. I just thought you might need some help.”

" Yeah, well thanks anyway. I'll let you know if I need anything.”

He stood there surveying the chaos for a moment and then he shrugged and went back upstairs.

I checked the basement door at the rear. The glass had been broken out and someone had pulled back the bolt by reaching through. The door was wide open of course. I shut it, pushing the bolt back into place. When I turned around, Grace was creeping timidly down the stairs, her face still pale. She clung to the railing. "Elizabeth's things," she whispered. "They spoiled all of her boxes, all the things I saved.”

She sank down on the steps, rubbing her temples. Her large dark eyes looked injured, perplexed, with a touch of something else that I could have sworn was guilt.

"Maybe we should call the police," I said, feeling mean, wondering just how protective of Lyle she intended to be.

"Do you really think?" she said. Her gaze flitted back and forth indecisively and she took out a handkerchief, pressing it against her forehead as though to remove beads of sweat. "Nothing might be missing," she said hopefully. "Maybe nothing's gone.”

"Or maybe we won't know the difference," I said.

She pulled herself up and moved over to the bin, taking in the disastrous piles of papers, stuffed animals, cosmetics, underwear. She stopped, picking up papers randomly, trying to make stacks. Her hands still trembled but I didn't think she was afraid. Startled perhaps, and thinking rapidly.

"I take it Raymond is still asleep," I said.

She nodded, tears welling up as the extent of the vandalism became more and more apparent. I could feel myself relent.

Even if Lyle had done it, it was mean-spirited, a violation of something precious to Grace. She had already suffered enough without this. I set the flashlight aside and began to pile papers back into the boxes: costume jewelry, lingerie, old issues of Seventeen and Vogue, patterns for clothing that Libby had probably never made. "Do you mind if I take these boxes with me and go through them tonight?" I asked. "I can have them back to you by morning.”

"All right. I suppose. I can't see what harm it would do now anyway," she murmured, not looking at me.

It seemed hopeless to me. In this jumble, who knew what might be missing? I'd have to go through the boxes and see if I could spot anything, but the chances weren't good. Lyle couldn't have been down there long—if it had been him. He knew I was coming back for the stuff and when he'd been there earlier, Grace probably told him exactly what time I expected to arrive. He'd had to wait until dark and he probably thought we'd spend more time upstairs before coming down. Still, he was cutting it close—unless he simply didn't care. And why didn't he break in during the three days I was gone? I thought back to his insolence and I suspected that he might take a certain satisfaction in thwarting me, even if he was caught at it.

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