Hit Me Page 14

“Now we can talk, Hannan. If we keep our voices at this level these other men won’t hear us. The steam’s an insulator. And it will probably keep ye from recording this, should ye be equipped with some new device I’m unable to detect.”

“I’m not.”

“Ah, well, I’m sure I can take ye at your word.”

The sarcasm was razor-sharp, and came wrapped in the rank odor of yesterday’s alcohol draining from the man’s pores. That, Keller guessed, was the point of the steam bath; it drew out yesterday’s poison and made room for today’s.

And room would be needed, because O’Herlihy’s breath carried a slightly different scent, one of alcohol not yet processed by that bulky body. So he’d had a drink to start the day. Some sort of whiskey, by the smell of it.

Ah, well. A strong man’s weakness.

“Now I’ll talk,” O’Herlihy said, in a cloud of whiskey breath. “And ye’ll listen. If ye’d called six months ago with the same sorry tale I’d have told ye to feck off. And hung up on ye, and taken no calls from ye afterward. Do ye know why?”

Keller shook his head.

“Because I’m not queer,” he said, “and there’s women who’d swear to it. There’s a woman who was a housekeeper of mine, in Cold Spring Harbor and other parishes, and I’d still see her after I went with the Thessalonians. Not as often, as I was older and felt the heat less, and she’s along in years herself, but still has her charms. But they’d be wasted on ye, wouldn’t they? You’re a gay boy yourself, are ye not?”

“No, I—”

“Of course ye are, and fixing to blame myself for your sorry state. Six months ago the press’d pay no mind to ye. They’d have heard rumors of this woman of mine, and one or two others who needn’t concern you, and they’d dismiss your dirty talk out of hand. But now I’m in the public eye, and if nothing else they’d have to refute your bloody words, and she’d get dragged into it, and I won’t have that. Do ye follow me, lad?”

“Father, I must have made a mistake.”

“Indeed ye did, thinking to squeeze money out of myself.”

“No,” Keller said. “No, I honestly thought—Father, I have these memories, but they can’t be true, can they?”

There was a pause. The door to the steam room opened. A man left, and two others entered.

“There might be something in those memories,” O’Herlihy said grudgingly. “There was another priest in the same parish, as thin as I was stout, and as dark as I was fair. Father Peter Mullane was his name, and he had a weakness for boys, and—”

“Father Peter,” Keller said, glad for a straw to grasp at.

“You recall him, lad?”

“I’d forgotten him completely, but as soon as you said his name I could picture him. Very slender, and dark-haired, and—God, I can see his face now!”

“Well, ye needn’t start searching for him. The poor man’s twenty years dead. And didn’t he take his own life? Whatever grief he caused ye, he’s paying for it many times over. Burning in hell for all of eternity, if ye believe the shite we taught ye.”

Scotch, Keller thought, getting the strongest whiff yet of the man’s breath. He said, “Father, I don’t know what to say. I made a terrible mistake.”

“Ye did, but at least spare me the burden of hearing your confession.” A sigh. “Well, they’ll get my testimony, the bastards, and there’ll be some misfortunate men in New Jersey, but it can’t be helped.” He snorted, and then seemed to remember there was someone sitting beside him. “And that’s nothing to ye, is it? Ye can go now, and we needn’t set eyes on one another again.”

Keller glanced at his wrist, where the garrote reposed, ready to be uncoiled and put to work. In a hot steamy room full of witnesses, against a man twice his size who’d yank it out of his hands and lash him with it.



I felt like a worm,” he told Dot. “I’m not sure, but I think he had me groveling.”

“That’s not how I picture you, Keller. Did you go to Catholic school?”

“No. I was in a Boy Scout troop that met in the parish hall of a Catholic church, but the scoutmaster wasn’t a member of the clergy.”

“So he just wore one of those silly little soldier suits.”

“It was a Boy Scout uniform,” he said, “and it never looked silly to me. Though I guess it might nowadays. You know, I don’t think it was the religious aspect that got to me. He just plain assumed command of the situation.”

“I guess he’s used to it.”

“Yesterday I thought maybe the robe had something to do with it, but this time all he had was a towel draped over his lap. Dot, the guy was sweating out yesterday’s Scotch and he already had a good start on today’s. His nose is red and his face is full of broken blood vessels. It’s a shame the client can’t wait for cirrhosis to take him off the board.”

“We don’t get paid for cirrhosis,” she said, “and the client can’t wait, not if he’s made up his mind to testify. But I have to say I don’t know how the hell you’re gonna get to him. There’s no way he’ll take another meeting with you, is there?”

“No, I had my chance. If I’d just gone ahead and given it my best shot—”

“You’d be dead,” she said, “or in jail. Say you brought it off. Then what? Dash out of the steam room with half a dozen witnesses in hot pursuit, pause to unlock your locker and put on your suit and tie your tie—”

“I wouldn’t have bothered with the tie.”

“Well, I hadn’t realized that, Keller. That’d make all the difference, all right. Get dressed, rush past everybody, ring for the elevator—”

“I’d have taken the stairs. But I get the message, Dot. I know you’re right. I just feel there should have been something I could do.”

“The question,” she said, “is what can you do now, and I have the feeling the answer is nothing. Say he keeps the same schedule every day as far as the steam room and massage are concerned. He walks what, ten or a dozen steps from his door to the limo? And if he’s not escorted, at a minimum he’s got the limo driver standing there holding the door.”

“It wouldn’t work.”

“No, of course not. And what are your chances of getting inside the residence?”

“None, as far as I can see.”

“Well, Keller, what does that leave?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “Look,” she said, “except for the money, what do we care if some of New Jersey’s finest get a small fraction of what’s coming to them? I’ll give back the money. That’s easy enough.”

“You hate to give back money.”

“I do,” she said, “because once I have it in hand I think of it as my money, and giving it back is like spending it, and what am I getting for it? Well, in this case what we’re both getting is piece of mind, and you could say we’re paying for it with somebody else’s money.”

“Don’t give it back just yet,” he said. “Maybe I’ll come up with something.”

When he got out of the New York Athletic Club, Keller had had a fleeting thought of rushing to the auction gallery. But that was ridiculous; it was after eleven, and the most spirited bidding since the sale of the Ferrary collection couldn’t have delayed the sale of British East Africa number 33. Besides, he’d already put in a high bid, which he’d second-guessed himself into raising after downing his croissant and coffee.

He’d rushed back to the hotel computer and upped his own bid from $4500 to $6000, and the instant he’d done so he began to have regrets. If he got the stamp for that bid, tax and buyer’s premium would boost it to something like $7700, and that was far more than the stamp was worth to him.

Well, it was done. Before, he’d worried that he would miss out on the stamp, and now he was worried that he’d get it, and it was hard to say which was worse. It would work out however it worked out, and in the meantime he’d pushed it out of his mind and gone to his rendezvous with the Thessalonian abbot.

For all the good that did him.

Afterward, flushed from the steam bath and the ignominy of it all, he returned to the Savoyard. He walked right past the business center and went to his room, and after he’d spoken with Dot he walked right past the business center again and continued four blocks uptown. He was a full half hour early for the afternoon session, and one of the assistants was happy to check on lot 77.

“Went for eighty-five hundred,” the woman reported. “All of British Africa was going way over estimate. All the best stuff, that is. Well, that’s the beauty of auctions. You never know.”

“Like life itself,” Keller said.

“Well, in my life,” she said, “sometimes you know. But auctions, all it takes is two bidders who both really want the same lot. And this is just a stamp. With postal history, where every cover is essentially unique, well, there’s no predicting. One piece will go for ten or twenty times estimate and another won’t bring a single bid. You really never know.”

She steered him to a refreshment table, where Keller joined a couple of other bidders who were drinking coffee and chipping away at a platter of sandwiches. Keller helped himself, and listened while one man told another how he’d been unable to interest his son in stamps, but his grandson was shaping up as an ardent young philatelist.

“Right now he likes first-day covers,” the man said, “which is fine at his age, but I take him to shows, and he’ll sit and go through boxes of covers, and you can see his imagination growing.”

“So it skips a generation,” his friend said.

“Exactly. Well, not to say what I shouldn’t, but better he should take after his grandfather than his father in certain respects.”

“And we’ll leave it at that,” the friend said, “before I say what I shouldn’t.”

The men walked off, laughing. Keller finished his sandwich and took his coffee into the auction room. He took a seat, paged through a catalog, and tried to get in the mood.

Without much success. The auction began at its appointed hour, and Keller couldn’t get lot 77 out of his head. He was at once relieved not to have to pay the $6000 plus extras that his bid had committed him to, and disappointed to have missed out on the stamp. On the one hand he was a fool to have bid as much as he did; on the other, the high bidder had evidently seen something in the stamp that Keller had not, and maybe he knew something; maybe Keller should have been in there all the way.

He had, he realized, a severe case of the woulda-coulda-shouldas, and recognizing the syndrome wasn’t enough to make it go away. Here he was, in a comfortable chair with a whole afternoon of worldwide stamps up for sale, and he couldn’t concentrate on what was going on now because he was trying to rewrite what had already taken place hours ago.

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