Hit Me Page 12

“In Billings, too.”

“They come for sushi,” she said, “and then maybe they try something else. Smart guy, my brother. Almost went broke, thought of sushi, and now he’s making lots of money.”

“That’s great.”

“You get to Helena, you try Thai Pagoda. Nice place.” She frowned. “Cheap rent, too. Not like here. You come back when you in New York, okay?”

“I will.”

“You looking good,” she said. “Lost some weight!”

“A couple of pounds.”

“Almost didn’t recognize. Then it comes to me. Table seven! Thai iced tea! Papaya salad! Shrimp pad thai!”

“That’s me, all right.”

“Very spicy! Make sure very spicy!”

Keller, back in his hotel room, sat in front of the television set watching NY1, the twenty-four-hour local news channel. It was pointless, he knew; if somebody at Thai Garden did make the connection and felt compelled to rat him out to the law, the media wouldn’t be reporting it for at least a couple of hours. But he sat there for a half hour anyway, and learned more than he needed to know about the sports and weather, along with ongoing coverage of the bomb scare at Thessalonian House. Once again he got to hear the abbot thunder at the crowd, bidding them to disperse, and even spotted himself in the act of dispersal.

That gave him a turn, but he realized that no one could have identified him on the basis of what he’d just seen. He was part of a crowd shot, seen from a distance, and he had his back to the camera. If he hadn’t known he was there, he doubted he’d have recognized himself.

There was, of course, no bomb to be found. The beagle’s name turned out to be Ajax, which struck Keller as a pretty decent name for a dog, bomb-sniffing or otherwise. There was a brief interview with Ajax’s handler, a light-side-of-the-news piece that Keller found reasonably interesting, and then the announcer’s voice turned serious as she talked about the criminal nature of bomb threats, and the need to respond to each of them, and the high cost involved.

“Every call reporting a bomb is logged, and every caller identified,” she said. “If you make a false report, it’s just a question of time before the long arm of the law reaches out and takes hold of you.”

Well, maybe not, Keller thought. Not unless the long arm of the law could reach all the way down into the sewers, and yank his phone out of the alligator’s belly.

In the hotel’s business center, Keller logged on to the Peachpit site and checked the current status of the lots he was interested in. With one or two exceptions, the opening bids were unchanged. He noted the changes in his catalog and was ready to return to his room when he thought of something.

Google. Who could imagine life without Google?

He was on the computer for fifteen minutes more, and made a few more notes. Then he pulled down the History menu and deleted that day’s searches, his and everybody else’s.

Then back to his room.


I’d like to talk to Abbot O’Herlihy,” Keller said. His voice, he noticed, was pitched higher than usual. He hadn’t planned on it. It just came out that way.

“That would be Abbot Paul,” said the monk who’d answered the phone. “And I’m afraid he’s not taking any calls.”

“I think it would be a good idea for him to take this one,” Keller said, and he could only hope he’d said it ominously.

There was a thoughtful silence. Then, “Perhaps you could tell me the nature of your business with the abbot.”

“It was almost thirty years ago,” Keller said, “and he wasn’t Abbot Paul then. He was Father O’Herlihy, with a parish in Cold Spring Harbor. And I was little Timmy Hannan, just ten years old, and, and—”

“I’m putting you on hold,” the monk said, and Keller heard a click, and then spent a full five minutes listening to recorded Gregorian chants.

Keller was just beginning to get into the music when it cut out in the middle of a phrase, and the voice that took over was very different from that of the mild-mannered chap who’d answered the phone. He placed it at once, the timbre, the authority, the slight but unmistakable touch of brogue.

“Who is this?”

“Someone you knew in Cold Spring Harbor.”

“Tell me your name.” Not What’s your name? but Tell me your name. This man, when he prayed, probably gave orders to God.

“Timothy Michael Hannan, Father, but you called me Timmy.”

“Did I? And when was this, by God?”

“Almost thirty years ago. You did…bad things.”

“Bad things.”

“And I forgot! I blocked it all out, and last week I saw you on television, and I heard your voice, and—”

“And it all came back to ye, did it?”

Remarkable how the son of a bitch managed to put you on the defensive. Keller, in his high-voiced role as little Timmy Hannan, damn near cowered.

He drew a quick breath and said, “Father, they want me to go to the media, to the district attorney, to the diocesan office, but first I wanted—”

“Wanted what?”

“To meet with you. If I could just have a few private minutes with you this afternoon, or perhaps this evening—”

“Private minutes.”

“Because, I don’t know, maybe it’s a false memory. God knows I want it to be. If we could just meet in person, in private—”


“Uh, I was hoping we could find some time today.”

“Tomorrow morning,” the abbot said, “a car will call for me at nine forty-five to take me to the New York Athletic Club. Do ye know where that is?”

“I can find it.”

“No doubt ye can. I am a member, and I will arrange for ye to be admitted as my guest. Spell your name for me.”


“Your last name, ye idiot.”

Keller wasn’t sure how to spell it, Hannan or Hannon, but he figured he was all right either way. He spelled it with two a’s.

“You’ll arrive at ten fifteen, no sooner and no later. They’ll give ye a pass and a locker key, and tell ye how to find the steam room. Strip to the skin, put your clothes in a locker, fasten the key around your wrist, and help yourself to a towel. I’ll be taking the steam before my massage. You’ll come join me, and we’ll have our ‘private time.’”

Keller wasn’t sure how to reply to that. While he was working it out, the phone clicked in his ear.


Wednesday morning’s session at Peachpit would feature Great Britain and the British Commonwealth, and there were several lots that Keller was hoping to bid on. The starting time was ten o’clock, and he’d just agreed to show up at the New York Athletic Club at ten fifteen.

Or had he? It seemed to him that he, in the persona of little Timmy Hannan, hadn’t been provided with much opportunity to agree or disagree. He’d been issued his instructions, and it seemed to be a given that he would follow them to the letter. And to the number, which was precisely fifteen minutes after the Peachpit crew began selling British stamps.

It was impossible to predict the pace of an auction; the more competitive the bidding, the longer it took to get through the lots. But no matter how you figured it, Keller couldn’t keep his date with the abbot without missing the first half of the session, and the tyranny of alphabetical order placed British East Africa very much in that time span.

British East Africa was what philatelists designated a dead country. The first time Keller heard that term he visualized an arid wasteland, with the skulls of cattle scattered here and there, and noxious vapors rising from the occasional water source. In due course he learned that the term merely indicated that a particular stamp-issuing entity was no longer operating under that name.

Keller’s collection had a cutoff date of 1940. He’d stretched that out to include British Commonwealth issues through 1952, the end of George VI’s reign constituting a natural stopping point. And lately he seemed to be stretching his limits for other countries as well, to accommodate World War II issues. All in all, though, his collection held no end of dead countries, and the list kept growing. Even Czechoslovakia had become a dead country, once it divvied itself up into the separate Czech and Slovak Republics.

British East Africa had its philatelic birth in 1890, when the British East Africa Company overprinted three Indian stamps for use in the territory under its administration. The next eight years saw the appearance of just over a hundred British East Africa stamps, some of them created specifically for the colony, others overprinted on stamps of India or Zanzibar. Then British East Africa was incorporated as the East Africa and Uganda Protectorate, which was subsequently folded into the Kenya Colony, which gave way to what collectors knew as K.U.T., for Kenya Uganda and Tanganyika, which Keller always thought of as an African version of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe.

Dead countries, all of them.

Commencing in 1890, British East Africa issued seventeen stamps with the design of a crowned sun, ostensibly symbolizing light and liberty. The following year, a shortage of certain denominations led the postal authorities to surcharge others, changing their denominations either by hand stamp or by pen and ink and creating eight collectible stamps in the process. One of these, listed in the Scott catalog as number 33, consisted of a two-anna vermilion stamp surcharged half an anna in manuscript, and marked as well with the initials A.B., for Archibald Brown.

Keller had no idea who Archibald Brown might be, and didn’t much care, but he wanted the stamp. It was unused, with only a trace of original gum, and the centering was not absolutely perfect, but the color was bright and unfaded, and an accompanying Sergio Sismondo certificate proclaimed it genuine and free of flaws.

Scott valued the stamp at $6000, and Peachpit’s presale estimate was $3500. A mail or Internet bidder had submitted an opening bid of $2750, and no one had topped it when Keller had last checked. But there was no telling what would happen when it went under the hammer.

How much did he want it? How high would he go for it? Well, that was one of the things you found out when you sat in an auction room. You might have a top figure in mind, but when the time came you might find out you didn’t really want it all that much. Or you might go much higher than you’d planned.

Could he get there in time? No, not a chance. British East Africa 33 was lot number 77, and would surely be sold in the first hour of the auction. At ten fifteen he’d show up at the NYAC, and by the time he was actually inside the steam room it would be ten thirty, and he couldn’t envision a scenario that left Paul Vincent O’Herlihy dead and Keller dressed and in Peachpit’s auction room by eleven o’clock.

Get real, he told himself. It’s only a hobby.

It was only a hobby, and the stamp was only a stamp, but that didn’t mean he could get it out of his head. He had dinner at a deli that was famous for giving you more food than you could eat, and it lived up to its reputation. The waiter was surprised, and seemed slightly offended, when Keller didn’t want to take home the leftover half of his enormous sandwich. “That’s a whole meal you’re throwing away,” the man told him. “Didn’t your mother ever tell you they’re starving in Africa?”

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