N Is For Noose Page 49


I returned to my car and turned the key in the ignition, not without struggle. The tape on my right hand made everything slightly awkward and I suspected that the compensatory effort over the next couple of days was going to wear me down. While the injury wasn't major, it was annoying and inconvenient, a constant reminder that I'd suffered at someone's hands. I did a U-turn onto the highway and headed back to Selma 's. By ten A.M., I was on the road for home.

TWELVE

Shortly after leaving Nota Lake, I'd thought I caught a glimpse of a county sheriff's cruiser keeping me company from half a mile back. The car was too far away to identify the driver, but the effect was to make me feel I was being ushered across the county line. I kept my eye on the rearview mirror, but the black-and-white maintained a discreet distance. When we reached the junction of 395 and 168, a road sign indicated that it was five miles to Whirly Township, seven miles to Rudd. The patrol car turned off. Whether the escort was deliberate or coincidental, I couldn't be sure. Nor could I determine whether the intention was benign or belligerent. Earlene's husband, Wayne, was the deputy who worked in Whirly Township, so maybe it was only him on his way to:work.

After that, the desert landscape sped by in a monotonous repetition of scrub-covered low hills, and I spent the rest of the journey in a haze of road-induced hypnosis. The intervening towns were few-Big Pine, Independence, Lone Pine, Cartago, Olancha-unexpected small enclaves that consisted primarily of gas stations, wooden cottages, coffee shops, perhaps a pizza restaurant or a Frosty Freeze, sometimes still boarded over for the winter. In most towns, there seemed to be more buildings abandoned than were currently in use. The structures were low wood fronts with a Western or Victorian feel to them. In some areas, the commercial businesses seemed to be devoted almost entirely to propane sales and service. An occasional feed store would be tucked in among the cottonwoods and pines. I passed one of those plain motel-style brown-and-yellow churches that made you suspect it would be depressing to believe whatever these people believed.

Between townships, the empty stretches of wilderness picked up. The air felt clear, warming as the road descended from the higher elevations. The snow had disappeared, soft flakes turning into an even softer rain. What should have been a clear, unobstructed view was subdivided by the march of power lines, telephone poles, and oil derricks-the cost of doing business in an otherwise pristine countryside. Out of the raw hills to my left I could see the occasional cinder cone and the dark craggy outcroppings of lava from ancient volcanic activity. Rocks dotted the landscape: green, red, brown, and cream. The area was undercut by two major fault lines-the San Andreas and the Garlock-that in 1872 had generated one of the largest earthquakes in Californian history.

Gradually, I let my thoughts drift back to events I'd left behind. I'd spent an hour at Selma 's before I'd departed Nota Lake. So far, given my four days'work, I'd earned a thousand dollars of the fifteen hundred she'd paid me in advance. That meant that I would owe her money if I decided to quit... which I confess had crossed my mind. My medical insurance would cover the expenses incurred in behalf of my bunged-up hand. She'd been properly upset by what had happened and we'd gone through the predictable litany of horror and remorse. ’’I feel sick. This is my fault. I got you into this,’’ she'd said.

’’Don't be silly, Selma. It isn't your fault. If nothing else it gives credence to your hunch about Tom's 'secret,'if you want to call it that.’’

’’But I never dreamed it'd-be dangerous.’’

’’Life is dangerous,’’ I said. I was feeling oddly impatient, ready to move on to the job at hand. ’’Look, we can sit here and commiserate, but I'd much prefer to use the time constructively. I've got a big pile of phone bills. Let's sit down together and see how many numbers you recognize. Any that seem unfamiliar, I can check from Santa Teresa.’’

Which is what we'd done, eliminating slightly more than three-quarters of the calls listed for the past ten months. Many were Selma 's, related to her church work, charity events, and assorted friendships outside the 619 area code. Some of the remaining numbers she'd recognized as business calls, a fact confirmed by judicious use of Tom's Rolodex. I'd placed the entire file of last year's phone bills in my duffel and then I'd gone down to the basement to take a look at the storage boxes I'd seen previously. There, in the dry, overheated space that smelled of ticking furnace and hot paper, a curious order prevailed.

Despite the fact that both Tom's desk and his den upstairs were an ungodly mess, Tom Newquist was systematic, at least where work was concerned. On a shelf to my left was a series of cardboard boxes where he'd placed bundles of field notes going back twenty-five years, including his days at the academy. Once a notebook had been filled, his method was to remove the six-hole lined pages, apply a wrapper showing the inclusive dates, and then secure them with a rubber band. Many times several bundles of notes pertained to the same case and those tended to be packed in separate manila envelopes, again labeled and dated. I could walk my fingers back through his investigations, year after year, without gaps or interruptions. Occasionally, on the outside of an envelope he'd penned a note indicating that a call or teletype had come through regarding the particulars of a case. He would then type an update and include a copy with his notes, indicating the agency making the call, the nature of the inquiry, and the details of his response. He was clearly prepared to substantiate his findings with court testimony where required, on every investigation he'd done since he'd been in Nota Lake. The last of the bundled notes were dated the previous April. Missing were notes from May and June of last year until the time of his death. I had to assume the missing notebook covered the previous ten months. There was no other gap in his records of that magnitude.


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