N Is For Noose Page 95

I went into Tom's study and sat down in his swivel chair. I turned on his desk light and started going through the notebook. The cover was a pebbly black leather, soft with wear, the corners bent. I took the obvious route, starting at the first page-dated June 1-and working through to the last, which was dated February 1, two days before he died. Here, at last, were the ten months'worth of missing notes. The scribbles, on thin-lined paper, covered all the miscellaneous cases he'd been working on during that period. Each was identified by a case number in the margin to the left, and included complaints, crime-scene investigations, names, addresses, and phone numbers of witnesses. In a series of nearly indecipherable abbreviations, I could trace the course of successive interviews on any given matter;Tom's notes to himself, his case references, the comments and questions that cropped up as he proceeded. There, in something close to hieroglyphics, I read about the discovery of Pinkie's body, the findings of the coroner, Trey Kirchner... whom Tom referred to as III. Any recurring name Tom generally reduced to its first letter. I found references to R and B, which I assumed were Rafer and Tom's boss, Sheriff Bob Staffer. By copious squints and leaps of imagination, I could see that he'd worked backward from Pinkie's death to his incarceration in Chino and his friendship with Alfie Toth, a fact confirmed by MB, Margaret Brine at NLSD, Nota Lake Sheriff's Department. CS I took to refer to Colleen Sellers, sometimes referred to as C, who'd called to report Alfie Toth's jail time in ST. I found the summary of his trip to Santa Teresa in June, including dates, times, mileage, and expenditures for food and lodging. As I'd learned earlier, he'd talked to Dave Estes at the Gramercy on 6-5. Later, he'd talked to Olga Toth, her address and phone number neatly noted. By the time CS called again to report the discovery of Toth's remains, Tom's notes had become cursory. Where previously he'd been meticulous about detailing the contents of conversations, he was suddenly circumspect, reverting I suspected to a code of some kind. The last page of notes contained only some numbers-8, 12, 1, 11, and 26 writ large, and underlined with an exclamation point and question mark. Even the punctuation suggested a disbelief most emphatic. I sat and stared at the numbers until they danced on the page.

I got up and went to the kitchen, where I paced the floor. I poured myself some water from the tap and I drank it, making the most satisfactory gulping sounds. I put the glass in the dishwasher and then in a fit of tidiness, added Brant's fork and his plate. I let my brain off the hook, tending to idle occupations while I picked at the riddle. What the hell did the numbers 8, 12, 1, 11, and 26 signify? A date? The combination to a safe? I thought about Tom's telling Barrett about the ’’key’’ in or on his desk. I'd been working at his desk for a week and hadn't seen any key that I remembered. What kind of key? The key to what? It's not as though his notebook had a tiny lock like a teenager's diary.

I went back to the den and sat down at his desk, immediately searching through his drawers again. Maybe he had a lock box. Maybe he had a home safe. Maybe he had a storage cupboard secured by a small combination lock. How many bags full of garbage had I thrown out this past week? How could I be sure I hadn't tossed the key he was referring to? I felt a wave of panic at the idea that I'd thrown out something crucial to his purposes and critical to mine.

One by one, I emptied the contents of each drawer, then removed the drawer itself, checking the back panel and the bottom. I got down on my hands and knees and peered at the underside of the desk, feeling along the sides in case a key had been taped in place. In the drawer with his handcuffs and nightstick, I came across his flashlight and used that as I felt along the drawer rails, tilted his swivel chair back to check the underside of the seat. Did he mean the key, as ’’a thing that explains or solves something else,’’ or a literal key, as an instrument or device to open a lock? I put the drawers back together and moved everything off the top. I ran a finger across his blotter, looking for a repetition of the numbers among the notes he'd scribbled. The numbers were there 8, 12, 1, 11, 26-appearing in the center of a noose. They were written twice more, once with a pen line encircling it and once in a box with a shaded border done in pencil. What if I'd discarded the critical information? Had the trash been picked up? I was working hard to suppress the nagging worry I felt. I was in a white-hot sweat. The house, as usual, felt like an oven. I crossed to the window and lifted the sash. I loosened the catches on the storm window and pushed the glass out unceremoniously, watching with satisfaction as the window dropped to the ground below. I swallowed mouthfuls of fresh air, hoping to quell my anxiety.

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