N Is For Noose Page 86

What was interesting was that James had told me about this alleged female as an addendum to his original comments. I tend to be suspicious of elaborations. Eyewitness reports are notoriously unreliable. The story changes each time it's told, modified for every passing audience;amplified, embellished, until the final version is a twisted variation of the truth. Certainly, the memory is capable of playing tricks. Images can be camouflaged by emotion, popping into view later when the mental film is rewound. Conversely, people sometimes swear to have seen things that were never there at all. For the second time, I wondered if Tom had gone to the Rainbow Cafe to meet someone. I'd asked Nancy about it once, but it might be time to press.

I set my notes aside and doused the lights. The mattress was soft and seemed to list to one side. The sheets had a satin finish that felt slick to the touch and generated little traction to offset my tendency to slide. The quilted spread was puffy, filled with down. I lay there and basted in my own body heat. In testimony to my constitution, I fell asleep at once.

I woke to the distant sound of the phone ringing in the kitchen. I thought the answering machine would pick up, but on the eighth persistent ding-a-ling, I flung off the covers and trotted down the hall in my T-shirt and underpants. There was no sign of Selma and the machine had been turned off. I lifted the receiver. ’’Newquists'residence.’’

Someone breathed in my ear and then hung up.

I replaced the receiver and stood there for a moment. Often, someone calling a wrong number will dial the same number twice, convinced the error is yours for not being who they wanted. The silence extended. I reactivated the answering machine, and then checked Selma's appointment calendar, posted on the refrigerator door. There was nothing marked, but this was Sunday and I remembered her mentioning a visit to a cousin down in Big Pine after church. The dish rack was empty. I opened the dishwasher. I could see that she'd eaten breakfast, rinsed her plate and coffee cup, and left them in the machine, which was otherwise empty. The interior walls of the dishwasher exuded a residual heat and I assumed she'd done a load of dishes first thing this morning before she'd left. The coffee machine was on. The glass carafe held four cups of coffee that smelled as if it had sat too long. I poured myself a mug, adding sufficient milk to offset the scorched flavor.

I padded back to the guest room, where I brushed my teeth, showered, and dressed, sipping coffee while I girded my loins. I didn't look forward to another day in this town, but there was nothing for it except to get the job done. Like a dutiful guest, I made my bed, ate the remaining three cookies to fortify myself, and returned the empty coffee mug and plate to the kitchen, where I tucked both in the dishwasher, following Selma's good example. I grabbed my leather jacket and my shoulder bag, locked the house behind me, and went out to the car. Phyllis was pulling into her driveway two doors down. I waved, convinced she'd spotted me, but she kept her eyes averted and I was left, feeling foolish, with the smile on my lips. I got in the car, forcing myself to focus on the job at hand. The gas gauge was close to E and since I was heading toward the Rainbow, I stopped for gas on my way out of town.

I pulled up to the full-serve pump and turned the engine off, reaching into my bag to find my wallet and gasoline credit card. I glanced over at the office windows where I could see two attendants in coveralls chatting together by the cash register. Both turned to look at my VW and then resumed their conversation. There were no other cars at the pumps. I waited, but neither came forward to assist me. I turned on the engine and gave the car horn a sharp toot. I waited two minutes more. No action at all. This was annoying. I had places to go and didn't want to sit here all day, waiting for a lousy tank of gas. I opened the car door and stepped out, peering across the top of the car to the open bay. The two attendants were no longer visible. Irritated, I slammed the car door and moved toward the office, which had been deserted.

’’Hello?’’ Nothing. ’’Could I get some service out here?’’ No one.

I went back to the car where I waited another minute. Maybe the two lads had inexplicably quit work or had been devoured by extraterrestrials hiding in the gents'. I started the engine and honked sharply, a display of impatience that netted nothing in the way of help. Finally, I pulled out with a little chirp of my tires to demonstrate my agitation. I slid into the flow of traffic on the main street and drove six blocks before I spotted another station. Hahaha, thought I. So much for the competition. I had no credit card for this rival brand, but I could afford to pay cash. Filling a VW never amounts to that much. I pulled into the second station, doing much as I had before. I turned the engine off, checked my wallet for cash. There was a car at the adjacent pump and the attendant was in the process of removing the nozzle from the tank. He glanced at me briefly and then I saw the alteration in his gaze.

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