Sometimes he wished she complained more.
But tonight's absence was different. It needed no further explanations or excuses, even to himself.
"Poor Ardythe," Ruth said. "Just as Walter was getting near retirement.
And that announcement just now makes it even worse."
"Oh, I thought you'd know. It was on the news. The people who planted the bomb sent-a communiqué I think they called it-to a radio station. They were boasting about what they'd done. Can you imagine? What kind of people must they be?"
"Which radio station?" As he spoke, Nim put down the phone with a swift movement, snapped the car radio to "on," then scooped up the phone again in time to hear Ruth say, "I don't know."
"Listen," be told her, "it's important I bear. So I'm going to bang up now and, if I can, I'll call you from Ardythe's."
Nim replaced the phone. The radio was already tuned to an all-news station and a glance at his watch showed a minute to the half hour when he knew there would be a news summary.
The San Roque off-ramp was in sight and he swung the Fiat onto it. The Talbots' home was just a mile or so away.
On the radio, a trumpet blast punctuated by Morse code announced a news bulletin. The item Nim had been waiting for was at the top.
"A group calling itself Friends of Freedom has claimed responsibility for an explosion today at a Golden State Power & Light generating plant. The blast claimed four lives and caused a widespread failure of electric power.
“The disclosure was in a tape recording delivered to a local radio station late this afternoon. Police have said that information on the tape points to its authenticity. They are examining the recording for possible clues."
Obviously, Nim thought, the station he was listening to was not the one which received the tape. Broadcasters didn't like to acknowledge a competitor's existence and, even though news like this was too important to be ignored, the other radio station wasn't being named.
"According to reports, a man's voice on the tape recording-so far unidentified-stated, quote, 'Friends of Freedom are dedicated to a People's revolution and protest the monopoly of power -which belongs rightfully to the people! End quote.
"Commenting on the deaths which occurred, the recording says, quote, 'Killing was not intended, but in the people's revolution now beginning, capitalists and their lackeys will be casualties, suffering for their crimes against humanity.' End quote.
"An official of Golden State Power & Light has confirmed that sabotage was the cause of today's explosion, but would make no other comment.
"Retail meat prices are likely to be higher soon. In Washington today the Secretary of Agriculture told a consumers . . ."
Nim reached out, snapping off the radio. The news depressed him with its sickening futility. He wondered about its effect on Ardythe Talbot, whom he was soon to see.
In the growing dusk he saw that several cars were parked outside the Talbots' modest, neat two-story house with its profusion of flower beds -a lifelong bobby of Walter's. Lights were on in the lower rooms.
Nim found a spot for the Fiat, locked it, and walked up the driveway.
The front door of the house was open and a hum of voices was audible. Nim knocked and waited. When no one answered, he went in.
In the hallway the voices became clearer. They were coming from the living room to the right, be realized. Nim could hear Ardythe. She sounded hysterical and was sobbing. He caught disconnected words. “ those murderers, oh my God! . . . was good and kind, wouldn't harm anyone . . . to call him those filthy names . . ." Interspersed were other voices, attempting to bring calm but not succeeding.
Nim hesitated. The living room door was ajar, though he could neither see in nor be seen. He was tempted to tiptoe out, leaving as unnoticed as he had come. Then abruptly the living room door opened fully and a man came out. Closing the door quickly behind him, he leaned back against it, his bearded, sensitive face pale and strained, eyes shut tightly as if for a moment's relief. The closed door cut off most of the sound from inside.
"Wally," Nim said softly. "Wally."
The other opened his eyes, taking a few seconds to collect himself. "Ob, it's you, Nim. Thanks for coming."
Nim had known Walter Talbot Jr., an only son, almost as long as he had been a friend of the dead chief. Wally Jr., too, worked for GSP&L-as a transmission lines maintenance engineer. He was married, with children, and lived on the opposite side of the city.
“There's not a helluva lot anyone can say," Nim told him. "Except I'm sorry."
Wally Talbot nodded. "I know." He motioned with an apologetic gesture toward the room lie had left. "I had to come out a minute. Some damn fool put the TV on and heard that goddamned announcement those murdering bastards made. Before that we'd calmed Mother down a bit. It set her off again. You probably heard."
"Yes, I did. Who's in there?"
"Mary, for one. We left someone with the kids and came on over. Then a lot of neighbors have been coming in; most are still here. I guess they mean well, but it isn't helping. If Dad were here he'd . . ." Wally stopped, forcing a wan smile. "It's hard to get used to the idea he won't be around anymore."
"I've been feeling that way, too." It was clear to Nim that Wally Jr. was in no shape to take charge of what was happening in the house.
"Listen," Nim said, "it can't go on like this. Let's go in there. I'll talk to your mother and do the best I can. You and Mar), start easing the others out."
"Okay, that makes sense. Thanks, Nim' Obviously, what Wally had needed was a lead.
There were perhaps ten people standing or seated in the living room as Nim and Wally went in. The room was bright and comfortable, normally spacious, but seemed crowded now. It was also hot, despite air conditioning. Several conversations were being conducted at the same time and the TV had been left on, contributing to a general hubbub. Ardythe Talbot was on a sofa, surrounded by several women, one of whom was Mary, Wally Jr.'s wife. The others Nim didn't recognize. Presumably they were the neighbors Wally had spoken of.
'though Ardythe was sixty at her last birthday-Nim and Ruth had attended a party to celebrate it-shc remained a strikingly handsome woman with a good figure and a strong face only lightly marked with beginning lines of age. Her stylishly short auburn hair was streaked naturally with gray.
Ardythe played tennis regularly and the effect showed in radiant good health. Today, though, her poise had crumbled. Her tear-stained face appeared drawn and old.
Ardythe was still speaking as she had been earlier, her voice choked, the words disjointed. But she stopped when she saw Nim.
"Ob, Nim." She put out her arms and the others made way as he went to her, sat beside her on the sofa and held her. "Oh, Nim," she repeated.
"You heard the terrible thing that happened to Walter?"
"Yes, dear," lie said gently. "I heard."
Nim observed Wally across the room, switch off the TV, then take his wife aside and speak to her quietly. Mary nodded. Immediately the two of them approached others, thanking them, ushering them out one by one. Nim continued to hold Ardythe, not speaking, trying to calm and comfort her. Soon the living room was quiet. Nim heard the front door close behind the last of the departing neighbors. Wally and Mary, who had gone out to the hallway, came back. Wally ran a band through his hair and beard. "I could use a stiff scotch," be announced. "Anyone else?"
Ardythe nodded. So did Nim.
"I'll get them," Mary said. She busied herself with glasses and mixes, then ashtrays, tidying the living room, removing its signs of recent occupancy.
Mary was slim, gamine and businesslike. Before her marriage to Wally she worked on the creative side of an advertising agency and still did freelance work while also caring for her family. Ardythe was sitting up unaided now, sipping her scotch, some signs of composure returning. She said suddenly, "I expect I look a mess."
"No more than anyone would," Nim assured her. But Ardythe had gone to a mirror. "Oh, my goodness!" She told the others, "Have your drinks. I'll be back soon." She left the living room, carrying her scotch, and they could hear her going upstairs. Nim reflected with wry amusement: Few men are ever as resilient or strong as women. Just the same, he decided, he would tell Wally first of Eric Humphrey's warning that the family should not view Walter's remains. He remembered, with a shudder, the chairman's words. ". . . virtually no skin left . . .