N Is For Noose Page 7


’’Really,’’ I murmured, for lack of anything better.

’’We're close to full up,’’ she remarked. ’’Unusual for March.’’

This was small talk in her book and I made appropriate mouth noises in response. Ahead of us, the cabins were spaced about seventy-five feet apart, separated by bare maples and dogwoods, and sufficient Douglas firs to resemble a cut-your-own Christmas tree farm. ’’Why do they call it Nota Lake? Is that Indian?’’

Cecilia shook her head. ’’Nope. Ancient times, nota was a mark burned into a criminal's skin to brand him a lawbreaker. That way you always knew who the evildoers were. Bunch of desperadoes ended up over in this area;scoundrels deported to this country from England back in the mid-seventeen hundreds. Some reason all of them were branded;killers and thieves, pickpockets, fornicators-the worst of the worst. Once their indenture'd been served, they became free men and disappeared into the west, landing hereabouts. Their descendants went to work for the railroad, doing manual labor along with assorted coolies and coloreds.

Half the people in this town are related to those convicts. Must have been a randy bunch, though where they found women no one seems to know. Ordered 'ern by mail, if my guess is correct.’’

We'd reached the first of the cabins and she continued in much the same tone, her delivery flat and without much inflection. ’’This is Willow. I give 'em names instead of numbers. It's nicer in my opinion.’’ She inserted her key. ’’Each one is different. Up to you.’’

Willow was spacious, a pine-paneled room maybe twenty feet by twenty with a fireplace made up of big knobby boulders. The inner hearth was black with soot, with wood neatly stacked in the grate. The room was pungent with the scent of countless hardwood fires. Against one wall was a brass bedstead with a mattress shaped like a hillock. The quilt was a crazy patch and looked as if it smelled of mildew. There was a bed table lamp and a digital alarm clock. The rug was an oval of braided rags, bleached of all color, thoroughly flattened by age.

Cecilia opened a door on the left. ’’This here's the bath and your hanging closet. We got all the amenities. Unless you fish,’’ she added, in a small aside to herself. ’’Iron, ironing board, coffeemaker, soap.’’

’’Very nice,’’ I said.

’’The other cabin's Hemlock. Located over near the pine grove by the creek. Got a kitchenette, but no fireplace. I can take you back there if you like.’’ For the most part, she spoke without making eye contact, addressing remarks to a spot about six feet to my left.

’’This is fine. I'll take this one.’’

’’Suit yourself,’’ she said, handing me a key. ’’Cars stay in the lot. There's more wood around the side. Watch for black widder spiders if you fetch more logs. Pay phone outside the office. Saves me the hassle of settling up for calls. We got a cafe down the road about fifty yards in that direction. You can't miss it. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Open six o'clock in the morning until nine-thirty at night.’’

’’Thanks.’’

After she left, I waited a suitable interval, allowing her time to reach the office ahead of me. I returned to the parking lot and retrieved my duffel, along with the portable typewriter I'd stashed in the rental car. I'd spent my off-hours at Dietz's catching up on my paperwork. My wardrobe, in the main, consists of blue jeans and turtlenecks, which makes packing a breeze once you toss in the fistful of underpants.

In the cabin again, I set the typewriter by the bed and put my few articles of clothing in a crudely made chest of drawers. I unloaded my shampoo and placed my toothbrush and toothpaste on the edge of the sink, looking around me with satisfaction. Home sweet home, barring the black widders. I tried the toilet, which worked, and then inspected the shower, artfully concealed behind a length of white monk's cloth hanging from a metal rod. The shower pan looked clean, but was constructed of the sort of material that made me want to walk on tiptoe. Outings at the community pool in my youth had taught me to be cautious, bare feet still recoiling instinctively from the clots of soggy tissues and rusted bobby pins. There were none here in evidence, but I sensed the ghostly presence of some oldfashioned crud. I could smell the same chlorine tinged with someone else's shampoo. I checked the coffeemaker, but the plug seemed to be missing one prong and there were no complimentary packets of coffee grounds, sugar, or non-dairy coffee whitener. So much for the amenities. I was grateful for the soap.

I returned to the main room and did a quick survey. Under the side window, a wooden table and two chairs had been arranged with an eye to a view of the woods. I hauled out the typewriter and set it up on the tabletop. I'd have to run into town and find a ream of bond and a copy shop. These days, most P.I.s use computers, but I can't seem to get the hang of 'ern. With my sturdy Smith-Corona, I don't require an electrical outlet and I don't have to worry about head crashes or lost data. I pulled a chair up to the table and stared out the window at the spindly stand of trees. Even the evergreens had a threadbare look. Through a lacework of pine needles, I could see a line of fencing that separated Cecilia's property from the one behind. This part of town seemed to be ranchland, mixed with large undeveloped tracts that might have been farmed at one point. I pulled out a tatty legal pad and made myself some notes, mostly doodles if you really want to know.


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