N Is For Noose Page 80

’’And tell them what? You don't have much.’’

’’I don't have anything,’’ I said. ’’Unless something develops, I'm at a dead loss.’’

’’I see. Then I suppose that's it.’’ Selma stubbed out her cigarette and got up without another word. She began to clear the dinner dishes, moving from the table to the sink.

’’Let me help you with that,’’ I said, getting up to assist.

’’Don't trouble.’’ Her tone of voice was frosty, her manner withdrawn.

I began to gather up plates and silverware, moving to the sink where she was already scraping leftover Jell-O into the garbage disposal. She ran water across a plate, opened the door to the dishwasher, and placed it in the lower rack. The silence was uncomfortable and the clattering of plates contained a note of agitation.

’’Is something on your mind?’’ I asked.

’’I hope I didn't make a mistake in hiring you.’’

I glanced at her sharply. ’’I never offered you a guarantee. No responsible P.I. could make a promise like that. Sometimes the information simply isn't there,’’ I said.

’’That's not what I meant.’’

’’Then what were you referring to?’’

’’I never even asked you for references.’’

’’A little late at this point. You want to talk to some of my past employers, I'll make up a list.’’

She was silent again. I was having trouble tracking the change in her demeanor. Maybe she thought I was giving up. ’’I'm not saying I'll quit,’’ I said.

’’I understand. You're saying you're out of your league.’’

’’You want to go up against the cops? Personally, I've got more sense.’’

She banged a plate down so hard it broke down the middle into two equal pieces. ’’My husband died.’’

’’I know that. I'm sorry.’’

’’No, you're not. Nobody gives a shit what I've gone through.’’

’’Selma, you hired me to do this and I'm doing it. Yes, I'm out of my league. So was Tom, for that matter. Look what happened to him. It f*kin'broke his heart.’’

She stood at the sink, letting the hot water run while her shoulders shook. Tears coursed along her cheeks. I stood there for a moment, wondering what to do. It seemed clear she'd go on weeping until I acted sincerely moved. I patted her awkwardly, making little murmurings. I pictured Tom doing much the same thing in his life, probably in this very spot. Water gurgled down the drain while the tears poured down her face. Finally, I couldn't stand it. I reached over and turned off the water. Live through enough droughts, you hate to see the waste. Where originally her grief had seemed genuine, I now suspected the emotion was being hauled out for effect. At long last, with much blowing and peeking at her nose products, she pulled herself together. We finished up the dishes and Selma retreated to her room, emerging shortly afterward in her nightie and robe, intending to make herself a glass of hot milk and get in bed. I fled the house as soon as it was decently possible. Nothing like being around a self-appointed invalid to make you feel hard-hearted.

Margaret and Hatch lived close to the center of town on Second Street. I'd called from Selma's before I left the house. I'd scarcely identified myself when she cut in, saying, ’’Dolores said you came to see her. What's this about?’’

In light of her father's murder, the answer seemed obvious. ’’I'm trying to figure out what happened to your father,’’ I said. ’’I wondered if it'd be possible to talk to you tonight. Is this a bad time for you?’’

She'd seemed nonplussed at my request, conceding with reluctance. I couldn't understand her attitude, but I wrote it off to my imagination. After all, the subject had to be upsetting, especially in light of his past abusiveness. Twice she put a palm across the mouthpiece and conferred with someone in the background. My assumption was that it was Hatch, but she made no specific reference to him.

The drive over was uneventful, despite the treacherous roads and the continuous sleet. There was no accumulation of snow so far, but the pavement was glistening and my tires tended to sing every time I hit a slippery patch. I had to use the brakes judiciously, pumping gently from half a block back when I saw the stoplights ahead of me change. Paranoid as I was at that point, I did note the close proximity of the Brine's house to the parking lot at Tiny's Tavern where I'd been accosted. Once Wayne and Earlene dropped the Brines off at home, Hatch could easily have doubled back. I found myself scouring the streets for sight of a black panel truck, but of course saw nothing.

I entered a tract of brick ranch houses maybe fifteen years old, judging from the maturity of the landscaping. Tree trunks were now sturdy, maybe eight inches in diameter, and the foundation plantings had long ago crept over the windowsills. I slowed when I spotted the house number. The Brines had two cars and a pickup truck parked in or near the drive. I found a parking spot two doors down and sat at the curb wondering if there was a party in progress. I turned in my seat and studied the house. There were dim lights in front, brighter lights around the side and toward the portion of the rear that I could see from my vantage point. This was Saturday night. She hadn't mentioned a Tupperware party or Bible study, nor had she suggested I come at some other time. Maybe they were having friends in to watch a little network television. I debated with myself. I didn't like the idea of walking into a social gathering, especially since I could always talk to her tomorrow. On the other hand, she'd said I could come and meeting with her tonight would delay my return to Selma's. I still had a key to her place and the plan was for me to let myself in the front door whenever I got back that night. The car became noticeably colder the longer I sat. The neighborhood was quiet with little traffic and no one visible on foot. Someone peeking out the windows would think I'd come to case the joint.

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