N Is For Noose Page 8

Essentially, Selma Newquist had hired me to reconstruct the last four to six weeks of her late husband's life on the theory that whatever had troubled him probably took place within that time frame. I don't generally favor spouses spying on one another-especially when one of the parties is dead-but she seemed convinced the answers would give her closure. I had my doubts.

Maybe Tom Newquist was simply worried about finances, or brooding about how to occupy his time during his retirement.

I'd agreed to give her a verbal report every two to three days, supplemented by a written account. Selma had demurred at first, saying verbal reports would be perfectly adequate, but I told her I preferred the written, in part to detail whatever information I collected. Productive or not, I wanted her to see what ground I was covering. It was just as important for her to be aware of the information I couldn't verify as it was for her to have a record of the facts I picked up along the way. With verbal reports, much of the data gets lost in translation. Most people aren't trained to listen. Given the complexity of our mental processes, the recipient tunes Out, blocks, forgets, or misinterprets eighty percent of what's been said. Take any fifteen minutes'worth of conversation and try to reconstruct it later and you'll see what I mean. If the communication has any emotional content whatever, the quality of the information retained degrades even further. A written report was for my benefit, too. Let a week pass and I can hardly remember the difference between Monday and Tuesday, let alone what stops I made and in what order I made them. I've noticed that clients are confident about your abilities until payment comes due and then, suddenly, the total seems outrageous and they stand there wondering exactly what you've done to earn it. It's better to submit an invoice with a chronology attached. I like to cite chapter and verse with all the proper punctuation laid in. If nothing else, it's a demonstration of both your IQ and your writing skills. How can you trust someone who doesn't bother to spell correctly and/ or can't manage to lay out a simple declarative sentence?

The other issue we'd discussed was the nature of my fees. As a lone operator, I really didn't have any hard-and-fast rules about billing, particularly in a case like this where I was working out of town. Sometimes I charge a flat fee that includes all my expenses. Some times I charge an hourly rate and add expenses on top of that. Selma had assured me she had money to burn, but frankly, I felt guilty about eating into Tom's estate. On the other hand, she'd survived him and I thought she had a point. Why should she live the rest of her life wondering if her husband was hiding something from her? Grief is enough of an affront without additional regrets about unfinished business. Selma was already struggling to come to terms with Tom's death. She needed to know the truth and wanted me to supply it.Fair enough. I hoped I could provide her with an answer that would satisfy.

Until I got a sense of how long the job would take, we'd agreed on four hundred bucks a day. From Dietz, I'd borrowed a boilerplate contract. I'd penned in the date and details of what I'd been hired to do and she'd written me a check for fifteen hundred dollars. I'd runthat by the bank to make sure it cleared before I got down to business. I'm sorry to confess that while I sympathize with all the widows, orphans, and under-dogs in the world, I think it's wise to make sure sufficient funds are in place before you rush to some one's rescue.

I closed the cabin and locked it, hiked back to my rental car, and drove the six miles into town. The highway was sparsley strung with assorted businesses: tractor sales, a car lot, trailer park, country store, and a service station.The fields in between were gold with dried grass and tufted with weeds. The wide sweep of sky had turned from strong blue to grey, a thick haze of white obscuring the mountain tops. Away to the west, a torn pattern of clouds lay without motion. All the near hills were a scruffy red brown, polka-dotted with white. Wind rattled in the trees. I adjusted the heater in the car, flipping on the fan until tropical breezes blew against my legs.

For my stay in Carson City, I'd packed my tweed blazer for dress up and a blue denim jacket for casual wear. Both were too light and insubstantial for this area. I cruised the streets downtown until I spotted a thrift store. I nosed the rental car into a diagonal parking space out front. The window was crowded with kitchenware and minor items of furniture: a bookcase, a footstool, stacks of mismatched dishes, five lamps, a tricycle, a meat grinder, an old Philco radio, and some red Burma-Shave signs bound together with wire. The top one in the pile read DOES YOUR HUSBAND. What, I thought. Does your husband what? Burma-Shave signs had first appeared in the 1920s and many persisted even into my childhood, always with variations of that tricky, bumping lilt. Does your husband... have a beard?... Is be really very weird?... If he's living in a cave... Offer him some... Burma-Shave. Or words to that effect.

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