N Is For Noose Page 84

’’That's good. More power to you. I hear you're investigating a murder. Margaret Brine's father, or that's the word.’’

’’It's slightly more complicated, but that's about it. As a matter of fact, I was just at her place, asking about his last visit.’’

Alice snorted. ’’What a horse's ass he was. He hustled my butt off, the randy little shit. I pinned his ears back, but he was hard to shake.’’

’’Who else did he hustle? Anyone in particular? Margaret tells me he was horny as all get out-’’

Alice held up a hand. ’’Mind if I interrupt for a sec? Something I should mention before you go on.’’

I hesitated, alerted by something in her tone. ’’Sure.’’

Alice studied the tip of her lighted cigarette. ’’I don't know how to say this, but people around here seem to be concerned about you.’’

’’Why? What'd I do?’’

’’That's what everybody's asking. Grapevine has it you're into drugs.’’

’’I am not! How ridiculous. That's ludicrous,’’ I said.

’’Also, you shot a couple of fellows in cold blood a while back.’’

’’I did?’’ I said, laughing in startlement. ’’Where'd you hear that?’’

’’You never killed anyone?’’

I felt my smile start to fade. ’’Well, yes, but that was self-defense. Both were killers, coming after me-’’

Alice cut in. ’’Look, I didn't get the details and I don't really give a shit. I'm willing to believe you, but folks around here take a dim view of it. We don't like the idea of somebody coming in here starting trouble. We take care of our own.’’

’’Alice, I promise. I've never shot anyone without provocation. The idea's repugnant. I swear. Where did this come from?’’

’’Who knows? This is something I picked up earlier. I overheard the fellows talking.’’

’’This was tonight?’’

’’And yesterday some, too. This was shortly after you left. I guess someone did some digging and came up with the facts.’’


’’Yeah. One guy you killed was hiding in a garbage can-’’

’’That's bullshit. He wasn't hiding, I was.’’

’’Well, maybe that's what I heard. You were lying in wait, which somebody pointed out was pretty cowardly. Word is, the most recent incident was three years back. It was in the Santa Teresa papers. Someone saw a copy of the article.’’

’’I don't believe this. What article?’’

Alice drew on her cigarette, regarding me with skepticism. ’’You weren't involved in a shoot-out in some lawyer's office?’’

’’The guy was trying to kill me. I just told you that. Talk to the cops if you don't want to take my word for it.

’’Don't get so defensive. I'm telling you for your own good. I might've done the same thing if I'd been in your place, but this is redneck country. Folks here close ranks. You better watch your step is all I'm saying.’’

’’Somebody's trying to discredit me. That's what this is about,’’ I said, hotly.

’’Hey, it's not up to me. I don't give a damn. You can whack anyone you want. There's times I'd do it myself, given half a chance,’’ she said. ’’The point is, people are getting pissed. I thought I should warn you before it went too far.’’

’’I appreciate that. I wish you could tell me where it's coming from.’’

Alice shrugged. ’’That's the way it is in small towns.’’

’’If you remember where the story originated, will you let me know?’’

’’Sure thing. In the meantime, I'd avoid crossing paths with the cops if I were you.’’

I felt a pang of anxiety, like an icicle puncturing my chest wall. ’’What makes you say that?’’

’’Tom was a cop. They're mad as hell.’’

Alice dropped the lighted cigarette in the toilet with a spat and then she flushed the butt away, waving at the air as if she could clear the smoke with a swishing hand. ’’You want anything else?’’

I shook my head, not trusting myself to speak.

I waited at the side exit, my hands in my pockets though the chill I felt was internally generated. I kept my mind on other things, defending against a mounting surge of uneasiness. Maybe this was why Macon was suddenly being so protective.

The night sky was overcast, and where the air should have been crystalline, a ground fog began to drift across the darkened parking lot. Two couples left together. One of the women was blind-drunk, laughing boisterously as she staggered across the icy tarmac. Her date had his arm across her shoulders and she leaned against him for support. She stopped in her tracks, held her hand up like a traffic cop, and then turned away to be sick. The other woman leaped backward, shrieking in protest. The ill woman lingered, holding on to a parked car 'til she was done and could move on.

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