N Is For Noose Page 11

’’I thought I'd start in Tom's den. Maybe the answer's easy, sitting right up on the surface.’’


I spent the rest of the afternoon working my way through Tom Newquist's insufferably disorganized home office. I'm going to bypass the tedious list of documents I inspected, the files I sorted, the drawers I emptied, the receipts I scrutinized in search of some evidence of his angst. In reporting to Selma, I did (slightly) exaggerate the extent of my efforts so she'd appreciate what fifty bucks an hour was buying in the current market place. In the space of three hours, I managed to go through about half the mess. Up to that point, whatever Tom was fretting about, he'd left precious little in the way of clues.

He was apparently compulsive about saving every scrap of paper, but whatever organizational principle he employed, the accumulation he left behind was chaotic at best. His desk was a jumble of folders, correspondence, bills paid and unpaid, income tax forms, newspaper articles, and case files he was working on. The layers were twelve to fifteen inches deep, some stacks toppling sideways into the adjacent piles. My guess was he knew how to put his hands on just about anything he needed, but the task I faced was daunting.

Maybe he imagined that any minute he'd have the clutter sorted and subdued. Like most disorganized people, he probably thought the confusion was temporary, that he was just on the verge of having all his papers tidied up. Unfortunately, death had taken him by surprise and now the cleanup was mine. I made a mental note to myself to straighten out my underwear the minute I got home. In the bottom drawer of his desk, I found some of his equipment-handcuffs, nightstick, the flashlight he must have carried. Maybe his brother, Macon, would like them. I'd have to remember to ask Selma later.

I went through two big leaf bags of junk, taking it upon myself to throw away paid utility stubs from ten years back. I kept a random sampling in case Selma wanted to sell the house and needed to average her household expenses for prospective buyers. I kept the office door open, conducting an ongoing conversation with Selma in the kitchen while I winnowed and pitched. ’’I'd like to have a picture of Tom.’’

’’What for?’’

’’Not sure yet. It just seems like a good idea.’’

’’Take one of those from the wall by the window.’’

I glanced over my shoulder, spotting several blackand-white photographs of him in various settings. ’’Right,’’ I said. I set aside the lapful of papers I was sorting and crossed to the closest grouping. In the largest frame, an unsmiling Tom Newquist and the sheriff, Bob Staffer, were pictured together at what looked to be a banquet. There were several couples seated at a table, which was decorated with a handsome centerpiece and the number 2 on a placard in the middle. Staffer had signed the photograph in the lower right-hand corner: ’’To the best damn detective in the business! As Ever, Bob Staffer.’’ The date was April of the preceding year. I lifted the framed photo from the hook and held it up to the fading light coming in the window.

Tom Newquist was a youthful sixty-three years old with small eyes, a round bland face, and dark thinning hair trimmed close to his head. His expression was one I'd seen on cops ever since time began-neutral, watchful, intelligent. It was a face that gave away nothing of the man within. If you were being interrogated as a suspect, make no mistake about it, this man would ask tough questions and there would be no hint from him about which replies might relieve you of his attention. Make a joke and his smile in response would be thin. Presume on his goodwill and his temper would flash in a surprising display of heat. If you were questioned as a witness, you might see another side of him-careful, compassionate, patient, conscientious. If he was like the other law enforcement officers of my acquaintance, he was capable of being implacable, sarcastic, and relentless, all in the interest of getting at the truth. Regardless of the context, the words ’’Impulsive’’'and ’’passionate’’ would scarcely spring to mind. On a personal level, he might be very different, and part of my job here was determining just what those differences might consist of. I wondered what he'd seen in Selma. She seemed too brassy and emotional for a man skilled'at camouflage.

I glanced up to find her standing in the doorway, watching me. Despite the fact that her clothes looked expensive, there was something indescribably cheap about her appearance. Her hair had been bleached to the texture of a doll's wig, and I wondered if up close I could see individual clumps like the plugs of a hair transplant. I held up the picture. ’’Is this one okay? I'd like to have it cropped and copies made. If I'm backtracking his activities for the past couple of months, the face could trigger something where a name might not.’’

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