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 said it would be okay. I'm Kinsey Millhone."
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 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."
Copyright © 1998 by Sue Grafton. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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