Sometimes I think about how odd it would be to catch a glimpse of the future, a quick view of events lying in store for us at some undisclosed date. Suppose we could peer through a tiny peephole in Time and chance upon a flash of what was coming up in the years ahead? Some moments we saw would make no sense at all and some, I suspect, would frighten us beyond endurance. If we knew what was looming, we'd avoid certain choices, select option B instead of A at the fork in the road: the job, the marriage, the move to a new state, childbirth, the first drink, the elective medical procedure, that long-anticipated ski trip that seemed like such fun until the dark rumble of the avalanche. If we understood the consequences of any given action, we could exercise discretion, thus restructuring our fate. Time, of course, only runs in one direction, and it seems to do so in an orderly progression. Here in the blank and stony present, we're shielded from the knowledge of the dangers that await us, protected from future hor
rors through blind innocence.
Take the case in point. I was winding my way through the mountains in a cut-rate rental car, heading south on 395 toward the town of Nota Lake, California, where I was going to interview a potential client. The roadway was dry and the view was unobstructed, weather conditions clear. The client's business was unremarkable, at least as far as I could see. I had no idea there was any jeopardy waiting or I'd have done something else.
I'd left Dietz in Carson City, where I'd spent the last two weeks playing nurse/companion while he recovered from surgery. He'd been scheduled for a knee replacement and I'd volunteered to drive him back to Nevada in his snazzy little red Porsche. I make no claims to nurturing, but I'm a practical person and the nine-hour journey seemed the obvious solution to the problem of how to get his car back to his home state. I'm a no-nonsense driver and he knew he could count on me to get us to Carson City without any unnecessary side trips and no irrelevant conversation. He'd been staying in my apartment for the two previous months and since our separation was approaching, we tended to avoid discussing anything personal.
For the record, my last name is Millhone, first name Kinsey. I'm female, twice divorced, seven weeks shy of thirty-six, and reasonably fit. I'm a licensed private detective, currently residing in Santa Teresa, California, to which I'm attached like a tetherball on a very short cord. Occasionally, business will swing me out to other parts of the country, but I'm basically a small-town shamus and likely to remain so for life.
Dietz's surgery, which was scheduled for the first Monday in March, proceeded uneventfully, so we can skip that part. Afterward, I returned to his condominium and toured the premises with interest. I'd been startled by the place when I first laid eyes on it, as it was more lavish and much better appointed than my poor digs back in Santa Teresa. Dietz was a nomad and I'd never pictured his having much in the way of material possessions. While I was closeted in a converted single-car garage (recently remodeled to accommodate a sleeping loft and a second bathroom upstairs), Dietz maintained a three-bedroom penthouse that probably encompassed three thousand square feet of living space, including a roof patio and garden with an honest-to-god greenhouse. Granted, the seven-story building was located in a commercial district, but the views were astounding and the privacy profound.
I'd been too polite to pry while he was standing right there beside me, but once he was safely ensconced in the orthopedic ward at Carson/Tahoe Hospital, I felt comfortable scrutinizing everything in my immediate range, which necessitated dragging a chair around and standing on it in some cases. I checked closets and files and boxes and papers and drawers, pockets and suitcases, feeling equal parts relief and disappointment that he had nothing in particular to hide. I mean, what's the point of snooping if you can't uncover something good? I did have the chance to study a photograph of his ex-wife, Naomi, who was certainly a lot prettier than he'd ever indicated. Aside from that, his finances appeared to be in order, his medicine cabinet contained no sinister pharmaceutical revelations, and his private correspondence consisted almost entirely of assorted misspelled letters from his two college-age sons. Lest you think I'm intrusive, I can assure you Dietz had searched my apartment just as thoroughly during the
time he was in residence. I know this because I'd left a few booby traps, one of which he'd missed when he was picking open my locked desk drawers. His license might have lapsed, but (most of) his operating skills were still current. Neither of us had ever mentioned his invasion of my privacy, but I vowed I'd do likewise when the opportunity arose. Between working detectives, this is known as professional courtesy. You toss my place and I'll toss yours.
He was out of the hospital by Friday morning of that week. The ensuing recovery involved a lot of sitting around with his knee wrapped in bandages as thick as a bolster. We watched trash television, played gin rummy, and worked a jigsaw puzzle with a picture depicting a roiling nest of earthworms so lifelike I nearly went off my feed. The first three days I did all the cooking, which is to say I made sandwiches, alternating between my famous peanut-butter-and-pickle extravaganza and my much beloved sliced hot-hard-boiled-egg confection, with tons of Hellmann's mayonnaise and salt. After that, Dietz seemed eager to get back into the kitchen and our menus expanded to include pizza, take-out Chinese, and Campbell's soup--tomato or asparagus, depending on our mood.
By the end of two weeks Dietz could pretty well fend for himself. His stitches were out and he was hobbling around with a cane between bouts of physical therapy. He had a long way to go, but he could drive to his sessions and otherwise seemed able to tend to his own needs. By then, I thought it entirely possible I'd go mad from trailing after him. It was time to hit the road before our togetherness began to chafe. I enjoyed being with him, but I knew my limitations. I kept my farewells perfunctory; lots of airy okay-fine-thanks-a-lot-I'll-see-you-laters. It was my way of minimizing the painful lump in my throat, staving off the embarrassing boo-hoos I thought were best left unexpressed. Don't ask me to reconcile the misery I felt with the nearly giddy sense of relief. Nobody ever said emotions made any sense.
So there I was, barreling down the highway in search of employment and not at all fussy about what kind of work I'd take. I wanted distraction. I wanted money, escape, anything to keep my mind off the subject of Robert Dietz. I'm not good at good-byes. I've suffered way too many in my day and I don't like the sensation. On the other hand, I'm not that good at relationships. Get close to someone and next thing you know, you've given them the power to wound, betray, irritate, abandon, or bore you senseless. My general policy is to keep my distance, thus avoiding a lot of unruly emotion. In psychiatric circles, there are names for people like me.
I flipped on the car radio, picking up a scratchy station from Los Angeles, three hundred miles to the south. Gradually, I began to tune in to the surrounding landscape. Highway 395 cuts south out of Carson City, through Minden and Gardnerville. Just north of Topaz, I had crossed the state line into eastern California. The backbone of the state is the towering Sierra Nevada Range, the uptilted edge of a huge fault block, gouged out later by a series of glaciers. To my left was Mono Lake, shrinking at the rate of two feet a year, increasingly saline, supporting little in the way of marine life beyond brine shrimp and the attendant feasting of the birds. Somewhere to my right, through a dark green forest of Jeffrey pines, was Yosemite National Park, with its towering peaks and rugged canyons, lakes, and thundering waterfalls. Meadows, powdered now in light snow, were once the bottom of a Pleistocene lake. Later in the spring, these same meadows would be dense with wildflowers. In the higher ranges, the winter s
nowpack hadn't yet melted, but the passes were open. It was the kind of scenery described as "breathtaking" by those who are easily winded. I'm not a big fan of the outdoors, but even I was sufficiently impressed to murmur "wow" speeding past a scenic vista point at seventy miles an hour.
The prospective client I was traveling to meet was a woman named Selma Newquist, whose husband, I was told, had died sometime within the last few weeks. Dietz had done work for this woman in the past, helping her extricate herself from an unsavory first marriage. I didn't get all the details, but he alluded to the fact that the financial "goods" he'd gotten on the husband had given Selma enough leverage to free herself from the relationship. There'd been a subsequent marriage and it was this second husband whose death had apparently generated questions his wife wanted answered. She'd called to hire Dietz, but since he was temporarily out of commission, he suggested me. Under ordinary circumstances, I doubted Mrs. Newquist would have considered a P.I. from the far side of the state, but my trip home was imminent and I was heading in her direction. As it turned out, my connection to Santa Teresa was more pertinent than it first appeared. Dietz had vouched for my integrity and, by the same token, he'd assured me
that she'd be conscientious about payment for services rendered. It made sense to stop long enough to hear what the woman had to say. If she didn't want to hire me, all I'd be out was a thirty-minute break in the journey.
I reached Nota Lake (population 2,356, elevation 4,312) in slightly more than three hours. The town didn't look like much, though the setting was spectacular. Mountains towered on three sides, snow still painting the peaks in thick white against a sky heaped with clouds. On the shady side of the road, I could see leftover patches of snow, ice boulders wedged up against the leafless trees. The air smelled of pine, with an underlying scent that was faintly sweet. The chill vapor I breathed was like sticking my face down in a half-empty gallon of vanilla ice cream, drinking in the sugary perfume. The lake itself was no more than two miles long and a mile across. The surface was glassy, reflecting granite spires and the smattering of white firs and incense cedars that grew on the slopes. I stopped at a service station and picked up a one-page map of the town, which was shaped like a smudge on the eastern edge of Nota Lake.
The prime businesses seemed to be clustered along the main street in a five-block radius. I did a cursory driving tour, counting ten gas stations and twenty-two motels. Nota Lake offered low-end accommodations for the ski crowd at Mammoth Lakes. The town also boasted an equal number of fast-food restaurants, including Burger King, Carl's Jr., Jack in the Box, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, a Waffle House, an International House of Pancakes, a House of Donuts, a Sizzler, a Subway, a Taco Bell, and my personal favorite, McDonald's. Additional restaurants of the sit-down variety were divided equally between Mexican, Bar-B-Que, and "Family" dining, which meant lots of screaming toddlers and no hard liquor on the premises.
The address I'd been given was on the outskirts of town, two blocks off the main highway in a cluster of houses that looked like they'd been built by the same developer. The streets in the area were named for various Indian tribes; Shawnee, Iroquois, Cherokee, Modoc, Crow, Chippewa. Selma Newquist lived on a cul-de-sac called Pawnee Way, the house a replica of its neighbors: frame siding, a shake roof, with a screened-in porch on one end and a two-car garage on the other. I parked in the driveway beside a dark Ford sedan. I locked the car from habit, climbed the two porch steps, and rang the bell--ding dong-- like the local Avon representative. I waited several minutes and then tried again.
The woman who came to the door was in her late forties, with a small compact body, brown eyes, and short dark tousled hair. She was wearing a red-blue-and-yellow plaid blouse over a yellow pleated skirt.
"Hi, I'm Kinsey Millhone. Are you Selma?"
"No, I'm not. I'm her sister-in-law, Phyllis. My husband, Macon, was Tom's younger brother. We live two doors down. Can I help you?"
"I'm supposed to meet with Selma. I should have called first. Is she here?"
"Oh, sorry. I remember now. She's lying down at the moment, but she told me she thought you'd be stopping by. You're that friend of the detective she called in Carson City."
"Exactly," I said. "How's she doing?"
"Selma has her bad days and I'm afraid this is one. Tom passed away six weeks ago today and she called me in tears. I came over as quick as I could. She was shaking and upset. Poor thing looks like she hasn't slept in days. I gave her a Valium."
"I can come back later if you think that's best."
"No, no. I'm sure she's awake and I know she wants to see you. Why don't you come on in?"
I followed Phyllis across the entrance and down a carpeted hallway to the master bedroom. In passing, I allowed myself a quick glance into doorways on either side of the hall, garnering an impression of wildly overdecorated rooms. In the living room, the drapes and upholstery fabrics were coordinated to match a pink-and-green wallpaper that depicted floral bouquets, connected by loops of pink ribbon. On the coffee table, there was a lavish arrangement of pink silk flowers. The cut-pile wall-to-wall carpeting was pale green and had the strong chemical scent that suggested it had been only recently laid. In the dining room, the furniture was formal, lots of dark glossy wood with what looked like one too many pieces for the available space. There were storm windows in place everywhere and a white film of condensation had gathered between the panes. The smell of cigarette smoke and coffee formed a musky domestic incense.
Phyllis knocked on the door. "Selma, hon? It's Phyllis."
I heard a muffled response and Phyllis opened the door a crack, peering around the frame. "You've got company. Are you decent? It's this lady detective from Carson City."
I started to correct her and then thought better of it. I wasn't from Carson City and I certainly wasn't a lady, but then what difference did it make? Through the opening I caught a brief impression of the woman in the bed; a pile of platinum blond hair framed by the uprights on a four-poster.
Apparently, I'd been invited in, because Phyllis stepped back, murmuring to me as I passed. "I have to get on home, but you're welcome to call me if you need anything."
I nodded my thanks as I moved into the bedroom and closed the door behind me. The curtains were closed and the light was subdued. Throw pillows, like boulders, had tumbled onto the carpet. There was a surplus of ruffles, bold multicolored prints covering walls, windows, and puffy custom bedding. The motif seemed to be roses exploding on impact.
I said, "Sorry to disturb you, but Phyllis
Selma Newquist, in a faded flannel nightie, pulled herself into a sitting position and straightened the covers, reminding me of an invalid ready to accept a bedtray. I estimated her age on the high side of fifty, judging by the backs of her hands, which were freckled with liver spots and ropy with veins. Her skin tones suggested dark coloring, but her hair was a confection of white-blond curls, like a cloud of cotton candy. At the moment, the entire cone was listing sideways and looked sticky with hair spray. She'd drawn in her eyebrows with a red-brown pencil, but any eyeliner or eye shadow had long since vanished. Through the streaks in her pancake makeup, I could see the blotchy complexion that suggested too much sun exposure. She reached for her cigarettes, groping on the bed table until she had both the cigarette pack and lighter. Her hand trembled slightly as she lit her cigarette. "Why don't you come over here," she said. She gestured toward a chair. "Push that off of there and sit down where I can see
I moved her quilted robe from the chair and placed it on the bed, pulling the chair in close before I took a seat.
She stared at me, puffy-eyed, a thin stream of smoke escaping as she spoke. "I'm sorry you had to see me this way. Ordinarily I'm up and about at this hour, but this has been a hard day."
"I understand," I said. Smoke began to settle over me like the fine spray from someone's sneeze.
"Did Phyllis offer you coffee?"
"Please don't trouble. She's on her way back to her place and I'm fine anyway. I don't want to take any more time than I have to."
She stared at me vaguely. "Doesn't matter," she said. "I don't know if you've ever lost anyone close, but there are days when you feel like you're coming down with the flu. Your whole body aches and your head feels so stuffy you can't think properly. I'm glad to have company. You learn to appreciate any distraction. You can't avoid your feelings, but it helps to have momentary relief." She tended, in speaking, to keep a hand up against her mouth, apparently self-conscious about the discoloration on her two front teeth, which I could now see were markedly gray. Perhaps she'd fallen as a child or taken medication as an infant that tinted the surface with dark. "How do you know Robert Dietz?" she asked.
"I hired him myself a couple of years ago to handle my personal security. Someone threatened my life and Dietz ended up working for me as a bodyguard."
"How's his knee doing? I was sorry to hear he was laid up."
"He'll be fine. He's tough. He's already up and around."
"Did he tell you about Tom?"
"Only that you were recently widowed. That's as much as I know."
"I'll fill you in then, though I'm really not sure where to start. You may think I'm crazy, but I assure you I'm not." She took a puff of her cigarette and sighed a mouthful of smoke. I expected tears in the telling, but the story emerged in a Valium-induced calm. "Tom had a heart attack. He was out on the road ... about seven miles out of town. This was ten o'clock at night. He must have had sufficient warning to pull over to the side. A CHP officer--a friend of ours, James Tennyson--recognized Tom's truck with the hazard lights on and stopped to see if he needed help. Tom was slumped at the wheel. I'd been to a meeting at church and came home to find two patrol cars sitting in my drive. You knew Tom was a detective with the county sheriff's?"
"I wasn't aware of that."
"I used to worry he'd be killed in the line of duty. I never imagined he'd go like he did." She paused, drawing on her cigarette, using smoke as a form of punctuation.
"It must have been difficult."
"It was awful," she said. Up went the hand again, resting against her mouth as the tears began to well in her eyes. "I still can't think about it. I mean, as far as I know, he never had any symptoms. Or let's put it this way: If he did, he never told me. He did have high blood pressure and the doctor'd been on him to quit smoking and start exercising. You know how men are. He waved it all aside and went right on doing as he pleased." She set the cigarette aside so she could blow her nose. Why do people always peek in their hankies to see what the honking noseblow has just netted them?
"How old was he?"
"Close to retirement. Sixty-three," she said. "But he never took good care of himself. I guess the only time he was ever in shape was in the army and right after, when he went through the academy and was hired on as a deputy. After that, it was all caffeine and junk food during work hours, bourbon when he got home. He wasn't an alcoholic--don't get me wrong--but he did like to have a cocktail at the end of the day. Lately, he wasn't sleeping well. He'd prowl around the house. I'd hear him up at two, three, five in the morning, doing god knows what. His weight had begun to drop in the last few months. The man hardly ate, just smoked and drank coffee and stared out the window at the snow. There were times when I thought he was going to snap, but that might have been my imagination. He really never said a word."
"Sounds like he was under some kind of strain."
"Exactly. That was my thought. Tom was clearly stressed, but I don't know why and it's driving me nuts." She picked up her cigarette and took a deep drag and then tapped the ash off in a ceramic ashtray shaped like a hand. "Anyway, that's why I called Dietz. I feel I'm entitled to know."
"I don't want to sound rude, but does it really make any difference? Whatever it was, it's too late to change, isn't it?"
She glanced away from me briefly. "I've thought of that myself. Sometimes I think I never really knew him at all. We got along well enough and he always provided, but he wasn't the kind of man who felt he should account for himself. His last couple of weeks, he'd be gone sometimes for hours and come back without a word. I didn't ask where he went. I could have, I guess, but there was something about him ... he would bristle if I pressed him, so I learned to back off. I don't think I should have to wonder for the rest of my life. I don't even know where he was going that night. He told me he was staying home, but something must have come up."
"He didn't leave you a note?"
"Nothing." She placed her cigarette on the ashtray and reached for a compact concealed under her pillow. She opened the lid and checked her face in the mirror. She touched at her front teeth as though to remove a fleck. "I look dreadful," she said.
"Don't worry about it. You look fine."
Her smile was tentative. "I guess there's no point in being vain. With Tom gone, nobody cares, including me if you want to know the truth."
"Can I ask you a question?"
"I don't mean to pry, but were you happily married?"
A little burble of embarrassed laughter escaped as she closed the compact and tucked it back in its hiding place. "I certainly was. I don't know about him. He wasn't one to complain. He more or less took life as it came. I was married before ... to someone physically abusive. I have a boy from that marriage. His name is Brant."
"Ah. And how old is he?"
"Twenty-five. Brant was ten when I met Tom, so essentially Tom raised him."
"And where is he?"
"Here in Nota Lake. He works for the fire department as a paramedic. He's been staying with me since the funeral though he has a place of his own in town," she said. "I told him I was thinking about hiring someone. It's pointless in his opinion, but I'm sure he'll do whatever he can to help." Her nose reddened briefly, but she seemed to gain control of herself.
"You and Tom were married for what, fourteen years?"
"Coming up on twelve. After my divorce, I didn't want to rush into anything. We were fine for most of it, but recently things began to change for the worse. I mean, he did what he was supposed to, but his heart wasn't in it. Lately, I felt he was secretive. I don't know, so ... tight-lipped or something. Why was he out on the highway that night? I mean, what was he doing? What was so precious that he couldn't tell me?"
"Could it have been a case he was working on?"
"It could have been, I suppose." She thought about the possibility while she stubbed out her cigarette. "I mean, it might have been job-related. Tom seldom said a word about work. Other men--some of the deputies--would swap stories in social situations, but not him. He took his job very seriously, almost to a fault."
"Someone in the department must have taken over his workload. Have you talked to them?"
"You say 'department' like it was some kind of big-city place. Nota Lake's the county seat, but that still isn't saying much. There were only two investigators, Tom and his partner, Rafer. I did talk to him--not that I got anything to speak of. He was nice. Rafer's always nice enough on the surface," she said, "but for all of the chitchat, he managed to say very little."
I studied her for a moment, running the conversation through my bullshit meter to see what would register. Nothing struck me as off but I was having trouble understanding what she wanted. "Do you think there's something suspicious about Tom's death?"
She seemed startled by the question. "Not at all," she said, "but he was brooding about something and I want to know what it was. I know it sounds vague, but it upsets me to think he was withholding something when it clearly bothered him so much. I was a good wife to him and I won't be kept in the dark now he's gone."
"What about his personal effects? Have you been through his things?"
"The coroner returned the items he had on him when he died, but they were just what you'd expect. His watch, his wallet, the change in his pocket, and his wedding ring."
"What about his desk? Did he have an office here at the house?"
"Well, yes, but I wouldn't even know where to begin with that. His desk is a mess. Papers piled up everywhere. It could be staring me in the face, whatever it is. I can't bring myself to look and I can't bear to let go. That's what I'd like you to do ... see if you can find out what was troubling him."
I hesitated. "I could certainly try. It would help if you could be more specific. You haven't given me much."
Selma's eyes filled with tears. "I've been racking my brain and I have no idea. Please just do something. I can't even walk in his den without falling apart."
Oh boy, just what I needed--a job that was not only vague, but felt hopeless as well. I should have bagged it right then, but I didn't, of course. More's the pity, as it turned out.From the Paperback edition.
Excerpted from N Is For Noose by Sue Grafton. . Excerpted by permission of Random House Audio, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.