N Is For Noose Page 3


The prime businesses seemed to be clustered along the main street in a five-block radius. I did a cursory driving tour, counting ten gas stations and twenty-two motels. Nota Lake offered low-end accommodations for the ski crowd at Mammoth Lakes. The town also boasted an equal number of fast-food restaurants, including Burger King, Carl's Jr., Jack in the Box, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, a Waffle House, an International House of Pancakes, a House of Donuts, a Sizzler, a Subway, a Taco Bell, and my personal favorite, McDonald's. Additional restaurants of the sit-down variety were divided equally between Mexican, BarB-Que, and ’’Family’’ dining, which meant lots of screaming toddlers and no hard liquor on the premises.

The address I'd been given was on the outskirts of town, two blocks off the main highway in a cluster of houses that looked like they'd been built by the same developer. The streets in the area were named for various Indian tribes- Shawnee, Iroquois, Cherokee, Modoc, Crow, Chippewa. Selma Newquist lived on a cul-de-sac called Pawnee Way, the house a replica of its neighbors: frame siding, a shake roof, with a screened-in porch on one end and a two-car garage on the other. I parked in the driveway beside a dark Ford sedan. I locked the car from habit, climbed the two porch steps, and rang the bell-ding dong-like the local Avon representative. I waited several minutes and then tried again.

The woman who came to the door was in her late forties, with a small compact body, brown eyes, and short dark tousled hair. She was wearing a redblue-and-yellow plaid blouse over a yellow pleated skirt.

’’Hi, I'm Kinsey Millhone. Are you Selma?’’

’’No, I'm not. I'm her sister-in-law, Phyllis. My husband, Macon, was Tom's younger brother. We live two doors down. Can I help you?’’

’’I'm supposed to meet with Selma. I should have called first. Is she here?’’

’’Oh, sorry. I remember now. She's lying down at the moment, but she told me she thought you'd be stopping by. You're that friend of the detective she called in Carson City.’’

’’Exactly,’’ I said. ’’How's she doing?’’

’’ Selma has her bad days and I'm afraid this is one. Tom passed away six weeks ago today and she called me in tears. I came over as quick as I could. She was shaking and upset. Poor thing looks like she hasn't slept in days. I gave her a Valium.’’

’’I can come back later if you think that's best.’’

’’No, no. I'm sure she's awake and I know she wants to see you. Why don't you come on in?’’

’’Thanks.’’

I followed Phyllis across the entrance and down a carpeted hallway to the master bedroom. In passing, I allowed myself a quick glance into doorways on either side of the hall, garnering an impression of wildly overdecorated rooms. In the living room, the drapes and upholstery fabrics were coordinated to match a pinkand-green wallpaper that depicted floral bouquets, connected by loops of pink ribbon. On the coffee table, there was a lavish arrangement of pink silk flowers. The cut-pile wall-to-wall carpeting was pale green and had the strong chemical scent that suggested it had been only recently laid. In the dining room, the furniture was formal, lots of dark glossy wood with what looked like one too many pieces for the available space. There were storm windows in place everywhere and a white film of condensation had gathered between the panes. The smell of cigarette smoke and coffee formed a musky domestic incense.

Phyllis knocked on the door. ’’ Selma, hon? It's Phyllis.’’

I heard a muffled response and Phyllis opened the door a crack, peering around the frame. ’’You've got company. Are you decent? It's this lady detective from Carson City.’’

I started to correct her and then thought better of it. I wasn't from Carson City and I certainly wasn't a lady, but then what difference did it make? Through the opening I caught a brief impression of the woman in the bed;a pile of platinum blond hair framed by the uprights on a four-poster.

Apparently, I'd been invited in because Phyllis stepped back, murmuring to me as I passed, ’’I have to get on home, but you're welcome to call me if you need anything.’’

I nodded my thanks as I moved into the bedroom and closed the door behind me. The curtains were closed and the light was subdued. Throw pillows, like boulders, had tumbled onto the carpet. There was a surplus of ruffles, bold multicolored prints covering walls, windows, and puffy custom bedding. The motif seemed to be roses exploding on impact.

I said, ’’Sorry to disturb you, but Phyllis said it would be okay. I'm Kinsey Millhone.’’

Selma Newquist, in a faded flannel nightie, pulled herself into a sitting position and straightened the covers, reminding me of an invalid ready to accept a bedtray. I estimated her age on the high side of fifty, judging by the backs of her hands, which were freckled with liver spots and ropy with veins. Her skin tones suggested dark coloring, but her hair was a confection of white-blond curls, like a cloud of cotton candy. At the moment, the entire cone was listing sideways and looked sticky with hair spray. She'd drawn in her eyebrows with a red-brown pencil, but any eyeliner or eye shadow had long since vanished. Through the streaks in her pancake makeup, I could see the blotchy complexion that suggested too much sun exposure. She reached for her cigarettes, groping on the bed table until she had both the cigarette pack and lighter. Her hand trembled slightly as she lit her cigarette. ’’Why don't you come over here,’’ she said. She gestured toward a chair. ’’Push that off of there and sit down where I can see you better.’’


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