N Is For Noose Page 77


I went up the spiral stairs and dutifully started shoving items in my duffel.

EIGHTEEN

The ocean was white with fog, the horizon fading into milk a hundred yards offshore. The sun behind clouds created a harsh, nearly blinding light. Colors seemed flattened by the haze, which lent a chill to the air. A quick check of the weather channel before I'd departed showed heavy precipitation in the area of California where I was headed and within the first twenty-five miles, I could already begin to sense the shift.

I took Highway 126 through Santa Paula and Fillmore until I ran into Highway S, where I doglegged over to Highway 14. I drove through canyon countrybalding, brown hills, tufted with chapparel, as wrinkled and hairy as elephants. Power lines marched across the folds of the earth while the highway spun six lanes of concrete through the cuts and crevices. Residential developments had sprung up everywhere, the ridges dotted with tract houses so that the natural rock formations looked strangely out of place. There was evidence of construction still in progress-earth movers, concrete mixers, temporary equipment yards enclosed in wire fencing in which heavy machinery was being housed for the duration. An occasional Porta-Potty occupied the wide aisle between lanes of the freeway. The land was the color of dry dirt and dried grass. Trees were few and didn't seem to assert much of a presence out here.

By the time I'd passed Edwards Air Force Base, driving in a straight line north, the sky was gray. The clouds collected in ascending layers that blocked out the fading sun overhead. The drizzle that began to fall looked more like a fine vapor sheeting through the air. Misty-looking communities appeared in the distance, flat and small, laid out in a grid, like an outpost on the moon. Closer to the road, there would be an occasional outbuilding, left over from god knows what decade. The desert, while unforgiving, nevertheless tolerates man-made structures, which remain-lopsided, with broken windows, roofs collapsing-long after the inhabitants have died or moved on. I could see the entire expanse of rain-swept plains to the rim of hushed buffcolored mountains. The telephone poles, extending into the horizon ahead of me, could have served as a lesson in perspective. Behind the barren, pointed hills, rugged granite out-croppings grew darker as the rain increased. Gradually, the road moved into the foothills. The mountains beyond them were imposing. Nothing marred the featureless, pale surface-no trees, no grass, no mark of human passage. At higher elevations, I could see vegetation where low-hanging clouds provided sufficient moisture to support growth.

I'd tucked my semiautomatic in the duffel. The gun experts, Dietz among them, were quick to scoff at the little Davis, but it was a handgun I knew and it felt far more familiar to me than the Heckler and Koch, a more recent acquisition. Given the condition of my bunged up fingers, I doubted I'd be capable of pulling the trigger in any event, but the gun was a comfort in my current apprehensive state.

Little by little, I was giving up my initial irritation with Selma. As with anything else, once a process is under way, there's no point in railing against the Fates. I regretted that I hadn't had time to contact Leland Peck, the clerk at the Gramercy Hotel. I'd taken his coworker's word that he had nothing to report. Any good investigator knows better. I should have taken the trouble to look him up so I could quiz him about his recollections of the plainclothes detective with the warrant for Toth's arrest.

In the meantime, secure in my ignorance of events to come, I thought idly of the night ahead. I truly hate being a guest in someone's home. The bed seldom suits me. The blankets are usually skimpy. The pillows are flat or made out of hard rubber that smells of halfdeflated basketballs. The toilet refuses to flush fully or the handle gets stuck or the paper runs out so that you're forced to search all the cabinets looking for the ever so cunningly hidden supply. Worst of all, you have to ’’make nice’’ at all hours. I don't want someone across the table from me while I'm eating my breakfast. I don't want to share the newspaper and I don't want to talk to anyone at the end of the day. If I were interested in that shit, I'd be married again by now and put a permanent end to all the peace and quiet.

By the time I arrived in Nota Lake at 6:45, night had settled on the landscape and the weather was truly nasty. The drizzle had intensified into a stinging sleet. My windshield wipers labored, collecting slush in an arc that nearly filled my windshield. My guess was the people of Nota Lake, like others in perpetually cold climates, had strategies for coping with the shifting character of snow. From my limited experience, the freezing rain seemed extremely hazardous, making the roadway as slick as a skating rink. In moments, I could feel the vehicle slide sideways and I slowed to a snail's pace. At the road's edge, the dead grass had stiffened, collecting feathery drifts of whirling snow. Selma had bullied me into having supper with her. I'm easily influenced in food matters, having been conditioned these past years by Rosie's culinary imperiousness. When ordered about by any woman with a certain autocratic tone, I do as I'm told, largely helpless to resist.


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