N Is for Noose
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 you better."
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
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