A is for Alibi Page 55

"That's unfortunate," she murmured, placing a hand against her throat. "I'm uh ... sure it wasn't Lyle ...”

"It doesn't matter much anyway," I said. I felt sorry for her in spite of myself. "I packed everything back as neatly as I could. I'll just stack the boxes in the basement near the bin. You'll probably want to have that repaired when you get the basement door fixed.”

She nodded. She moved to close the door and I stepped back, watching her pad back into the kitchen in her soft-soled slippers. I felt as if I'd personally violated her life somehow, that everything was ending on a bad note. She'd been as helpful as she knew how and she'd gotten little in return. I had to shrug. There was nothing I could do at this point. I unloaded the car, making several trips, stacking boxes just inside the damaged bin. Unconsciously, I listened for Lyle. The light in the basement was cold and gray by day, but aside from the splintered lathe work and the shattered window, there was no other evidence of the intruder. I went out the back way on the last trip up from the basement, checking idly for smashed cigarette butts, bloody fingerprints, a small printed business card perhaps, dropped by whoever broke in. I came up the concrete stairs outside, looking off to the right at the path the intruder had taken-across the patchy grass in the backyard, over a sagging wire fence, and through a tangle of bushes. I could see through to the next street where the car must have been parked. It was early morning yet and the sunlight was flat and still. I could hear heavy traffic on the Ventura Freeway, which was visible in glimpses through the clumps of trees off to the right. The ground wasn't even soft enough to absorb footprints. I moved around the building to the driveway on my left, noting with interest that the power mower had now been pulled off to one side. My palms were still ripped up in places, two-inch tracks where I'd skidded across the gravel on my hands. I hadn't even thought to use Bactine and I hoped I wouldn't be subject to raging gangrene, perilous infections, or blood poisoning—dangers my aunt had warned me about every time I skinned my knee.

I got back in my car and headed for Santa Teresa, stopping in Thousand Oaks for breakfast. I was home by 10:00 in the morning. I wrapped myself up in a quilt on the couch and slept for most of the day.

At 4:00, I drove out to Nikki's beach house. I had called to say I was back in town and she invited me out for a drink. I wasn't sure yet how much I would tell her or how much, if anything, I would hold back, but after my recent gnawing suspicions about her, I wanted to test my perceptions. There are moments in every investigation when my speculations about what's possible cloud and confuse any lingering sense I have of what's actually true. I wanted to check out my intuitions.

The house was situated on a bluff overlooking the ocean. The lot was small, irregular in shape, surrounded by eucalyptus trees. The house was tucked into the landscaping-laurel and yew, with pink and red geraniums planted along the path, its exterior made of cedar shingles, still a raw-looking wood brown, the roofline undulating like an ocean swell. There was a large oval window in the front, flanked by two bow windows, all undraped. The lawn was a pale green, tender blades of grass looking almost edible, curls of eucalyptus bark intermingled like wood shavings. White and yellow daisies grew in careless patches. The whole effect was of subtle neglect, a refined wilderness untended but subdued, curiously appealing with the thick scent of ocean overlaid and the dull thunder of waves crashing down below. The air was moist and smelled of salt, wind buffeting the ragged grass. Where the house in Montebello was boxy, substantial, conventional, plain, this was a whimsical cottage, all wide angles, windows, and unpainted wood. The front door had a tall oval leaded glass window in it, filled with tulip shapes, and the doorbell sounded like wind chimes.

Nikki appeared at once. She was wearing a celery-green caftan, its bodice embroidered with mirrors the size of dimes, the sleeves wide. Her hair was pulled up and away from her face, tied with a pale-green velvet ribbon. She seemed relaxed, her wide forehead unlined, the gray eyes looking light and clear, her mouth faintly tinted with pink, curving upward as though from some secret merriment. The languidness in her manner was gone and she was animated, energetic. I had brought the photograph album Diane had given me and I handed it to her as she closed the door behind me.

"What's this?" she asked.

"Diane put it together for Colin," I said.

"Come see him," she said. "We're making bread.”

I followed her through the house. There were no square rooms at all. The spaces flowed into one another, connected by gleaming pale wood floors and bright shag rugs. There were windows everywhere, plants, skylights. A free-form fireplace in the living room looked as if it had been constructed from buff colored boulders, piled up randomly like the entrance to a cave. On the far wall, a crude ladder led up to a loft that overlooked the ocean. Nikki smiled back at me happily, placing the album on the glass coffee table as she passed.

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