N Is For Noose Page 30


’’Almost,’’ I said. I glanced at Phyllis, wondering if this was a subject to be discussed in front of her.

Selma caught my hesitation. ’’That's fine. Go ahead. You don't have to worry about her. She knows all this.’’

’’I'm drawing a blank. I don't doubt your story. I'm sure Tom was worried about something. Other people have told me he didn't seem like himself. I just can't find any indication of what was troubling him. Really, I'm no better informed now than when I started. It's frustrating.’’

I could see the disappointment settle across Selma 's face.

’’It's only been two days,’’ she murmured. Phyllis was frowning slightly, straightening a pile of papers on the table in front of her. I hoped she had something to offer, but she said nothing so I went on.

’’Well, that's true,’’ I said. ’’And there's always the chance something will pop up unexpectedly, but so far there's nothing. I just thought you should know. I can give you a rundown when you have a minute.’’

’’I guess you can only do your best,’’ Selma said. ’’Coffee's hot if you want some. I left you a mug alongside that little pitcher of milk over there.’’

I crossed to the coffeemaker and poured myself a cup, taking a quick whiff of the milk before adding it to my coffee. I debated whether to mention the business with the panel truck, but I couldn't see the point. The two of them were already back at work and I didn't want to have to deal with their concern or their speculation. I might net myself a little sympathy, but to what end?

’’See you in a bit,’’ I said. The two didn't lift their heads. I shrugged to myself and moved into the den.

I stood in the doorway while I sipped my coffee, staring at the disarray that still littered the room. I'd been working my way through the mess in an orderly fashion, but the result seemed fragmented. Many jobs were half done and those I'd completed hadn't netted me anything in the way of hard data. I'd simply proceeded on the assumption that if Tom Newquist was up to something he had to have left a trace of it somewhere. There were numerous odd lots of paperwork I wasn't sure how to classify. I'd piled much of it on the desk in an arrangement invisible to the naked eye. I was down to the dregs and it was hard to know just where to go from here. I'd lost all enthusiasm for the project, which felt dirty and pointless. I did have six banker's boxes stacked along one wall. Those contained the files that I'd labeled and grouped: previous income tax forms, warranties, insurance policies, property valuations, various utility stubs, telephone bills, and credit card receipts. Still no sign of his field notes, but he might have left them at the station. I made a mental note to check with Rafer on that.

I set my mug on an empty bookshelf, folded together a fresh banker's box, and began to clear Tom's desk. I placed papers in the box with no particular intention except to tidy the space. I was here as an investigator, not as char in residence. Once I cleared the desk, I felt better. For one thing, I could see now that his blotter was covered with scribbles: doodles, telephone numbers, what looked like case numbers, cartoon dogs and cats in various poses, appointments, names and addresses, drawings of cars with flames shooting from the tailpipes. Some of the numerals hid been cast in three dimensions, a technique I employed sometimes while I was talking on the phone. Some items of information were boxed in pen;some were outlined and shaded in strokes of different thicknesses. I pored over the whole of it as though it were hieroglyphic, then panned across the surface item by item. The drawings were much like the ones sixth-grade boys seemed to favor in my elementary days-daggers and blood and guns firing fat bullets at somebody's cartoon head. The only repeat item was a length of thick rope fashioned into a hangman's noose. He'd drawn two of those;one with an X'd-out phone number in the center, the second with a series of numbers followed by a question mark. In one corner of the blotter was a hand-drawn calendar for the month of February, the numbers neatly filled in. I did a quick check of the calendar and realized the numbers didn't correspond to February of this year. The first fell on a Sunday, and the last two Saturdays of the month had been X'd out. I paused long enough to make a detailed list of all the telephone and case numbers.

Intrigued, I retrieved the file of telephone records from the past six months, hoping for a match. I was temporarily sidetracked when I spotted seven calls to the 805 area code, which covers Santa Teresa County, as well as Perdido County to the south and San Luis Obispo County to the north of us. One number I recognized as the Perdido County Sheriff's Department. There were six calls to another number spaced roughly two weeks apart. The most recent of these was late January, a few days before his death. On impulse, I picked up the phone and dialed the number. After three rings, a machine clicked on, a woman's voice giving the standard: ’’Sorry I'm not here right now to receive your call, but if you'll leave your name, number, and a message, I'll be happy to get back to you as soon as I can. Take as long as you need and remember, wait for the beep.’’ Her voice was throaty and mature, but that was the extent of the information I gleaned. I waited for the beep and then thought better of a message, quietly replacing the handset without saying a word. Maybe she was a friend of Selma 's. I'd have to ask when I had the chance.


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