A is for Alibi Page 30

Grace began to weep, a small mewing sound. "I don't remember. I don't think so. She didn't have hay fever or anything like that. I don't even know who'd remember after all these years.”

Grace looked at me then with those large, dark eyes. She had a good face, almost childlike, with a small nose, a sweet mouth. She took out a Kleenex and wiped her cheeks. "I don't think I can talk about it anymore. Stay for lunch. Meet Lyle. Maybe he can tell you something that would help.”


I sat on a stool in the kitchen and watched Grace make tuna fish salad for lunch. She had seemed to shake herself, as though wakening from a brief but vital nap and then she had put on her apron and cleared the dining-room table of the rest of her sewing paraphernalia. She was a woman who worked with care, her movements restful as she assembled placemats and napkins. I set the table for her, feeling like a well-behaved kid again while she rinsed lettuce and patted it dry, placing a layer on each plate like a doily. She neatly pared thin ribbons of skin from several tomatoes and coiled them like roses. She fluted a mushroom for each plate, added two thin spikes of asparagus so that the whole of it looked like a flower arrangement. She smiled at me timidly, taking pleasure in the picture she had created. "Do you cook?”

I shook my head.

"I don't have much occasion to myself except when Lyle's here. Raymond wouldn't notice and I probably wouldn't bother at all if it were just for me." She lifted her head. "There.”

I hadn't heard the truck pull into the driveway but she must have been tuned to Lyle's arrival. Her hand strayed unconsciously to a strand of hair, which she tucked back. He came in through a utility room off to the left, pausing around the comer, apparently to take off his boots. I heard two thunks. "Hey, babe. What's for lunch?”

He came around into the dining room with a grin, giving her cheek a noisy buss before he caught sight of me. He halted, the animation flickering off and on, then draining out of his face. He looked at her hesitantly.

"This is Miss Millhone," she said to him.

"Kinsey," I filled in, holding out my hand. He reached out and shook my hand automatically, but the central question still hadn't been answered. I suspected that I was intruding on an occasion that ordinarily admitted no variation. "I'm a private investigator from Santa Teresa," I said.

Lyle moved over to Raymond without another glance at me.

"Hey, Pops. How's it going today? You feeling okay?”

The old man's face registered nothing, but his eyes came into focus. Lyle took the headphones off, turning the set off too. The change in Lyle had been immediate and I felt as if I'd just seen snapshots of two different personalities in the same body, one joyful, the other keeping watch. He was not much taller than me and his body was trim, his shoulders wide. He had his shirt pulled out, unbuttoned down the front. His chest muscles were spare but well formed like those of a man who's been lifting weights. I guessed him to be about my own age. His hair was blond, worn long and faintly tinted with the green of a chlorinated swimming pool and hot sun. His eyes were a washed-out blue, too pale for his tan, his lashes bleached, his chin too narrow for the breadth of his cheeks. The overall effect was of a face oddly off-good looks gone slightly askew, as though under the surface there were a hairline crack. Some subterranean tremor had caused the bones to shift minutely and the two halves of his face seemed not quite to match. He wore faded jeans slung low on his hips and I could see the silky line of darkish hair pointing like an arrow toward his crotch.

He went about his business, ignoring me completely, talking to Grace while he worked. She handed him a towel, which he tucked under Raymond's chin, and then he proceeded to lather and shave him with a safety razor, which he rinsed in a stainless-steel bowl. Grace was taking out bottles of beer, removing the caps, pouring liquid into tulip glasses which she set at each place. There was no plate prepared for Raymond at all. When the shaving process had been completed, Lyle brushed Raymond's thinning white hair and then fed him a jar of baby food. Grace shot me a satisfied look. See what a dear he is? Lyle reminded me of an older brother caring for a toddler so that Mom would approve. She did. She looked on affectionately while Lyle scraped Raymond's chin with the bowl of the spoon, easing the drooling vegetable puree back into Raymond's slack mouth. Even as I watched, a stain began to spread across the front of Raymond's pants.

"Hey, don't worry about it, Pops," Lyle crooned, "we'll get you cleaned up after lunch. How's that?”

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