Hit Me Page 17

Keller got to JFK hours before his flight. He remembered, finally, to buy a plush rabbit for Jenny, who collected stuffed animals as ardently as he collected stamps. He checked his bag, the rabbit snugly stowed inside it, and picked up his boarding pass, then found a bar with a TV tuned to local news. He ordered a Diet Coke, and of course the third news item reported a new link between sugar-free soft drinks and cancer. The barmaid evidently heard the item herself, and glanced at Keller even as he was looking her way.

Neither of them had to speak a word. She scooped up his glass, dumped its contents, rinsed it, and looked inquiringly at him. He pointed to a bottle of beer, which she uncapped and placed before him, along with the glass. He reached for his wallet, but she shook her head and walked off to serve somebody else.

The beer lasted Keller for most of an hour. He was waiting for a particular news item, not really expecting to hear it, but disappointed all the same.

Waiting was always the hardest part.

Around seven thirty he realized that a sandwich and the better part of a croissant didn’t amount to a full day’s rations. He moved from the bar to a nearby table, where he ordered a Caesar salad with grilled shrimp and a second beer. The salad wasn’t bad. Neither was the beer, but half of it was plenty.

He could see and hear the bar’s TV from where he was sitting, so he got another go-round with the sports and weather and various fires and traffic wrecks. And nothing much else.

Just as they were about to call his flight for boarding, he took out his cell phone and called Dot. “I’m heading home,” he said.

“Well, I can’t say I’m surprised. I don’t know why I sent you in the first place. I’ll send back the money.”

“No, don’t do that,” he said.


“Not just yet,” he said. “Wait three days and see what happens.”

“Three days?”

“Maybe four.”

“Four days. I could do that. I mean, they don’t know you’re on your way home, do they?”

He ended the call, stopped in the men’s room. Was the phone compromised? Even if it wasn’t, what did he need with it now? He took it apart, snapped the chip in half, and did other things to render the thing inoperative. He dropped the different components in different trash receptacles and went to board his plane.

“She’s going to love this,” Julia said, brandishing the rabbit. “Not only is it wonderfully soft and squishy, it’s from her daddy. Why don’t you go put it in her bed and she’ll find it when she wakes up?”

Was there anything more beautiful than Jenny sleeping? He tucked in the rabbit at her side and returned to the kitchen, where he looked at his wife and found an answer to his question.

“I’m a rotten husband,” he said. “I didn’t bring you anything.”

“You came back in one piece,” she said. “That’s good enough. Did you bring a story to get me all excited?”

“Not quite yet.”

That puzzled her, but she let it go. “Not a problem,” she said. “Tonight you won’t need a story. You know what they say about absence? Well, it’s not just the heart that grows fonder.”

“Now, here’s a stamp I’m happy to have,” Keller said, lifting Gabon number 48 with his stamp tongs. “If you just take a quick look, you’d think it was the same as this one here. Denomination’s the same, five francs, colors are the same, and you’ve got the same picture. That’s a woman of the Fang tribe, and isn’t she pretty?”

“Pity,” Jenny agreed.

“When I was a little boy, I had some of these stamps. Well, ones just like them. The low values. You see this stamp? It shows a warrior, also of the Fang tribe, and he’s a man, and very fierce. But I saw the fancy headdress and always thought he was a woman. Funny, huh?”


“Now what makes this stamp different,” Keller said, even as he slipped the stamp into the mount he’d cut for it, “is the inscription. It says ‘Congo Français,’ and the other one says ‘Afrique Equatoriale,’ so it belongs to the first of the two sets. It goes in the last blank space on the page, one I’ve been looking to fill for years now. There. Doesn’t it look nice?”

“Nice ’tamp.”

“Gabon was a French colony in West Africa,” he told her. “It issued stamps until 1934, when it was merged into French Equatorial Africa. Now of course it’s an independent country, but Daddy’s collection only goes to 1940, so his Gabon stamps stop in 1933.”

“Maybe Daddy’ll take us to Gabon someday,” Julia said. “You know what we ought to get? A globe, so you could show her where all the countries are. I can see how you thought the warrior was a woman. Though you might have noticed that he’s holding a couple of spears.”

“A fierce woman,” he said. “A globe’s a good idea. That’s probably what I should have bought instead of the stuffed rabbit.”

“Well, globe or no globe, don’t try to take the rabbit away from her. She’ll tear your arm off.”

“Rabbit,” Jenny said.

“A bunny rabbit,” Keller agreed. “One of your better words, isn’t it? Now, these stamps are interesting. They aren’t very pretty, but there’s a great story that goes with them. See, they’re from German East Africa, which was a German colony before the First World War.”

“Like Koochoo, which Daddy told you about, except even your mommy can tell where this one’s located.”


“Gesundheit. I was close, wasn’t I?”

“You were,” Keller said. “But listen to this, will you? During the war, the post office in German East Africa couldn’t get stamps from the fatherland, so they had these printed by the evangelical mission in Wuga—”

“Wuga,” Jenny echoed.

“See, sweetie? Now Daddy’s talking your language.”

“—but before they were needed, new stamps did arrive from Germany. Then, with British troops advancing, the postal authorities buried all of the Wuga stamps—”

“Wuga. Wuga.”

“—to keep the Brits from capturing them. Stamps! Why would they care if the enemy captured the stamps? They were overrunning the whole colony, for God’s sake.”

“Who thought that up, the same genius who ran your Yankee post office during the War of the Northern Aggression?”

“You’d almost think so,” he said. “After the war, before the colony was taken away from Germany and parceled out to Britain and Belgium, the Germans dug up the stamps. Most of them were so damaged from being buried that they had to be destroyed, and the rest weren’t exactly pristine, but they took them home and auctioned them off.”

“And you’ve got a whole sheet of them.”

“Of the seven and a half heller, yes. It’s the least expensive of the three denominations, but an actual unbroken sheet—well, let’s just say I wasn’t the only person who wanted it.”

No one actually present in the room had fought him for it, but there was competition online, and a phone bidder who just wouldn’t quit. But here he was, trimming a large sheet of plastic mounting material to fit, and preparing a blank album page to receive it.

The sheet was fragile, and he handled it with great delicacy. He’d have done so anyway, but having shelled out a small fortune for it made him especially careful with it.

Would he get the money back? He’d put on CNN at breakfast, behavior uncharacteristic enough to get a raised eyebrow from Julia, if not a question. He’d been hoping for a particular news item from New York, the same one he’d hoped for at the airport bar.

No luck. And there were so many things that could go wrong, the most likely of which being that O’Herlihy would decide to save this magnificent bottle for a special occasion, or even attempt to curry favor by passing it on to a bishop. Keller had an awful vision of the brass-bound casket ascending up the hierarchy, until it wound up carrying off the Holy Father himself.

Things to think about while affixing an extraordinary pane of stamps to an album page. And while Jenny was standing patiently at his side, waiting for him to tell her more about what he was doing. So he told her how the Belgian portion of German East Africa had been known as Ruanda-Urundi, but when it became independent it split into two countries, Rwanda and Burundi.

“Wanda,” Jenny said. “Rundi.”


It’s Dot.”

He looked up. It was remarkable how stamps took him into another dimension. He hadn’t been aware that Julia had left the room, hadn’t heard the phone ring, hadn’t heard her return, and here she was, handing him the phone.

“Well, congratulations,” Dot said. “Your horse came in and paid a good price.”


“There’s an online news feed that keeps you up to the minute,” she said, “and the story’s breaking right now. Respected religious leader, blah blah blah, extreme stress, blah blah blah, expected to provide invaluable testimony, blah blah blah.”

“Sounds as though it’s mostly blah blah blah.”

“Well, isn’t that always the way, Keller? Everything is mostly blah blah blah. What it boils down to, evidently the poor fellow got this special bottle of whiskey and it was so good he drank more than his usual amount.”

“His usual amount,” Keller said, “was enough to float a battleship.”

“Oh, this is interesting. Preliminary examination suggests that the alcoholic intake was exacerbated by barbiturates. The man washed down sleeping pills with booze, and that’s never a good idea, is it?”


“Death by misadventure,” she said. “Now I have to wonder how you got him to take the pills. And if I had to guess, I’d say you dissolved them in the whiskey. Which would be good.”


“Because once the lab works its magic on the leftover booze, they’ll know what really happened. And that’ll keep the client from whining that he doesn’t want to pay us for something that happened all by itself. Not that I’d let him get away with that, but who needs the hassle?”

“Not us.”

“You betcha. So I don’t have to give the money back, and they have to send us some more. You happy?”


“And New York was all right?”

“New York was fine.”

“And I’ll bet you brought home some stamps. Well, you must want to go play with them, so I’ll let you go now. Now put Jenny on the phone so Aunt Dot can give her a big kiss.”

“See?” Keller said. “I told you it wasn’t exciting.”

“It was a problem,” Julia said, “and a complicated one, and you tried different things, and in the end you found the solution. How could that fail to be exciting?”


“Oh, because there was no action? No slam-bang adventure? The life of the mind is exciting enough, at least for those of us who have one.”

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