N Is For Noose Page 85

The foursome reached their vehicle and piled in, though the sick woman sat sideways with her head hanging out the door for a good five minutes before they were finally able to pull away. I searched the empty rows of cars, checking the dark. The music from the bar behind me was reduced to a series of dull, repetitive thumps. I caught a flash of light and saw a car pull in. I stepped back into the shadows until I was assured it was Macon in his black-and-white. He pulled up beside me and sat there with his engine running. I moved forward, walking around the front of the patrol car to the window on the driver's side. He rolled it down as I approached.

’’How'd it go?’’ he asked. I could hear the racket of his car radio dispatcher talking to someone else. He turned the volume down.

I put a hand on the door. ’’Alice tells me there's a rumor going around that I'm some sort of dope-crazed vigilante.’’

He looked off to one side. He stirred restlessly, tapping the steering wheel with his gloved hand. ’’Don't worry about gossip. Everybody talks in this town.’’

’’Then you heard it, too?’’

’’Nobody pays any attention to that stuff.’’

’’Not true. Someone went to the trouble to do a background check.’’

’’And got what? It's all bullshit. I don't believe a word of it.’’

Which meant he'd heard the same stories everyone else had been treated to. ’’I better see you home. I got a call to check out.’’

I got in my car and he followed me as far as Selma's driveway, his engine idling while I crossed the front lawn.

Selma had left the porch light on and my key turned easily in the lock. I waved from the doorway and he took off. I slipped out of my wet shoes and carried them down the hall to the guest room. The house was quiet, not even the murmur of a television set to suggest Selma was awake.

I slipped into the guest room and closed the door behind me. She'd turned on a bed table lamp and the room was washed in cheery pink. On the nightstand, she'd left me a plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies secured in plastic wrap. I ate two, savoring the flavors of butter and vanilla. I ate two more to be polite before I stripped off my jacket. Apparently, Selma was not in the habit of turning down the furnace at night and the room felt close with heat. I crossed to the window, pushed the curtains aside, and raised the sash. Frigid air poured through the gap left by the storm window, still resting against the bushes three feet down.

I stared out at the portion of the street that I could see. A car passed at a slow speed and I pulled back out of sight, wondering if the occupants had spotted me. I hated being in Nota Lake. I hated being an outsider, the target of local gossip that misrepresented my actions. I hated my suspicions. The thought of a uniform was beginning to make me salivate like a dog subjected to some odd form of Pavlovian conditioning. Where once the badge and the nightstick had been symbols of personal safety, I now found myself picturing them with trepidation, as if stung by electric shocks. If I was right about the guy's connection to law enforcement, then his was the badge of authority and what was I? Some little pipsqueak P.I. with a prissy sense of justice. Talk about a mismatch.

Why couldn't I just hop in my car and barrel home tonight? I needed to be in a place where people cared for me. For a moment, the pull was overpowering. If I left within the hour, I could be in Santa Teresa by four A.M. I pictured my snug platform bed with its blue-and-white quilt, stars visible through the Plexiglas dome overhead. Surely, the sky there would be clear and the air would smell like the Pacific thundering close by. I visualized the morning. Henry would bake cinnamon rolls and we'd have breakfast together. Later I could help him in the yard, where he'd kneel at his flower beds, the pale soles of his feet like something cast in plaster of Paris. I stepped away from the window, effectively breaking the spell. The only road home is through the forest, I thought.

Within minutes, I'd peeled off my clothes and pulled on the oversized T-shirt I was using as a gown. Usually I sleep nude, but in someone else's house, it pays to be prepared in case of fire. I washed my face and brushed my teeth with the usual difficulty. I returned to the bedroom and circled restlessly. The bookshelves were filled with knick-knacks. There was not so much as a magazine in view and I'd forgotten to bring a book this time. I was too wired for sleep. I took the file from the duffel and got into bed, adjusting the reading lamp so I could review the notes I'd typed. The only item that leaped out at me was James Tennyson's report of the woman walking down the road the night Tom died. According to his account, she was approaching from the direction of Tom's truck and she veered off into the woods when she caught sight of his patrol car. Was he lying about that? Had he invented the woman in an attempt to throw me off? He hadn't struck me as devious, but the touch would have been nice since it suggested Tom had been in the woman's company when he was stricken with his fatal heart attack. I wondered what kind of woman would have walked off and left him in the throes of death. Perhaps someone who couldn't afford to be seen with him. Knowing what I knew of him, I didn't believe he was having an affair, so if the woman existed, why conceal her presence? I knew he'd been at the Rainbow Cafe at some unaccustomed hour.

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