Hit Me Page 29

The total face value of the lot ran to $1838, and he divided the sum in half and counted out nine $100 bills and added a twenty. She said she owed him a dollar, and insisted on paying it. As he was packing up what he’d bought and wondering if he’d come out ahead by the time he was done shipping it, she asked him if there was anything else he could use. She had books that she wouldn’t mind selling, and some of them were pretty old. Did he have any interest in books?

Just stamps, he told her. If she happened to have any old envelopes with stamps on them, he’d be glad to take a look at them and let her know if they were something he could use.

She snapped her fingers, which was something you didn’t see often. “In that trunk,” she said. “You know, I’ve been meaning to get rid of that, but it’s way up in the attic and I don’t go there if I can help it. But there’s a little stack of envelopes there. People in the family used to save letters, you know, and in Houghty’s family as well, and some of them go all the way back to the war.”

He knew which war she meant.

“A few times,” she said, “I thought some of those stamps might be worth something, and what I ought to do was soak them off the envelopes, but—”

“No, never do that.”

“Well, I guess I’m glad I never got around to it, from the tone of your voice! But isn’t that what collectors do?”

“Not with old envelopes. No, you don’t want to do anything of the sort. There are people who collect the whole envelope—covers, they call them—and they like them even better with the letters intact.”

“That’s what’s in the attic. Envelopes with letters in them. And then there’s some that don’t even have any stamps on them, though how they got through the mail without them is beyond me. You probably won’t want those, will you?”

“Maybe we should see what’s up there,” he said.

There were forty-one envelopes, and they fit quite comfortably in a box that had once held fifty Garcia y Vega cigars. “I don’t think there are any outstanding rarities here,” he told Mrs. Ricks, “but I can pay you twelve hundred dollars for these.”

“That much for those old letters?”

“I’m pretty sure I’ll come out okay at that figure,” he told her. “And if I don’t, well, I’ll just add them to my own collection.”

But he didn’t collect U.S.—or Confederate, either, for that matter—and he knew just where to send the material he’d purchased. He’d met a fellow at an auction in Dallas, a dealer-collector hybrid from Montgomery who specialized in the postal history of the Confederacy, and when he got home he was able to put his hands on the man’s business card.

He picked up the phone in his stamp room, dialed the number. “I’ve got a few pieces that might interest you,” he said. “Can I send them for your offer?”

The offer came by return mail, in the form of a check for an even $15,000. There was a note along with it, allowing that one particular item alone might bring almost that much at auction. “But we’ll never know,” the fellow said, “because it’s found a permanent home in my personal collection. You come up with any more goodies like this, you know where to send them.”

He put the check in the bank, and added another a few days later, from the gentleman in Connecticut who bought and sold discounted postage; the mint stamps he’d paid $919 for had returned $1286. That was no more of a profit than he deserved, considering his time and shipping costs, but the $15,000 from the Alabaman, welcome though it was, left a sour taste in his mouth.

He spent a few days thinking about it, and then he made a phone call and showed up at the Hurst Street address with a check for $3500. “Those covers were better than I realized,” he told Edith Ricks. “And it seems only fair that you should share in the profits.”

She was astonished, and tried to get him to come in for another round of coffee and cookies, but he pleaded another appointment and went home. “It’s not as though she needed the money,” he told Julia, “but she was certainly happy to have it.”

“That’s the way it is with money,” she said. “It’s welcome wherever it goes. You didn’t have to pay her extra.”


“She’d never have known what you got for those covers.”

“No, of course not.”

“Conscience money.”

“Is that what it was? It just seemed, oh, I don’t know. Appropriate?”

“I’ll tell you what it is, even though you didn’t mean it that way. But that’s how it’ll turn out.”

“What’s that?”

“Bread upon the waters,” she said. “You’ll see.”

And he did get a few nibbles over the next month or so, though none of them amounted to much. He told a woman in Metairie that her late husband’s boyhood stamp collection, housed, as Keller’s own had been, in a Modern Postage Stamp Album, would be best donated to charity—a church rummage sale, perhaps, to save the cost of shipping it to one of the stamp charities.

Another woman had a soldier’s letters home, or in any event the envelopes they’d come in. The letters themselves had disappeared, and she had no idea who the sender might be, or the recipient, either; they’d turned up, carefully wrapped in oilcloth, when her husband had taken down a wall to enlarge their kitchen.

The letters, an even dozen of them, had been posted from Germany in the immediate aftermath of World War II, and bore stamps issued by the Allied Military Government. The stamps were common, but the covers were interesting, and Keller’s offer of $20 for the lot was accepted.

It was also high, as he found out when he emailed a couple of scans to an eBay dealer who did a lot with covers. The man’s offer was $1.50 a cover, $2 less than Keller had paid for the material, and he’d have the trouble and expense of mailing them to upstate New York.

He mailed them off, took the loss. He could have kept them, but this way he’d recorded another transaction for his sideline.

Bread upon the waters, but nothing much to show for it, and when the calls stopped coming he more or less forgot about Edith Vass Ricks.

And then he heard from the woman in Cheyenne.


Keller packed everything he needed in a wheeled case that was well within the airline’s limits for a carry-on. He checked it anyway, because he didn’t want some zealous security officer to confiscate his stamp tongs.

Which seemed unlikely, but Keller had known it to happen. A perfin and precancel collector he’d met at a show had told him about it, how the woman from Homeland Security had glared at his tongs as if they were an AK-47. “Look at this,” she’d said, holding them aloft. “Five, six inches long! Made of steel! You could put somebody’s eye out with these!”

“I extended my index finger,” the man told Keller, “and I was just about to point out how easily I could use it to gouge her eye out, but something stopped me.”

“Just as well, I’d say.”

“Oh, I know. I’d be awaiting trial even as we speak. But can you imagine taking a man’s tongs from him? That particular pair didn’t even have pointed tips, I want you to know. Rounded, so you couldn’t stab yourself by accident.”

Or even on purpose, Keller thought, packing two pairs of tongs (one with rounded tips, the other with tips just made for stabbing) and two magnifiers and, of course, his catalog. He checked his bag straight through to Cheyenne, and boarded his flight to Denver with his laptop in a padded briefcase and his cash in a money belt around his waist.

The airport in Denver had a free wi-fi connection, so he logged on and checked his email. He’d been outbid in an eBay auction, and the email invited him to raise his bid and win the lot after all. But of course the other bidder had waited until the last minute to top him, so the auction was over by the time Keller received the invitation.

Not that he’d have bothered anyway. He always bid his maximum at the beginning, and if someone else was willing to outbid him, then that person wanted it more than he did. He’d explained as much to Julia once, and she’d told him his attitude was remarkably mature. He still hadn’t decided whether she was being ironic.

He thought of killing time at a couple of favorite sites, but decided to save his battery instead. He logged off and carried his briefcase to the men’s room, where he locked himself in a stall and took out the envelope Dot had sent. It held a pink ruled index card with one side blank and a name and address and phone number on the other.

He’d memorized that information earlier, and had considered destroying the index card afterward, but dismissed the notion as stupid. He’d also considered copying the data into a computer file, and decided that would be even stupider. For now the man whose name was on the card was alive and well, and that meant there was no risk in having the card in his possession. If something happened to the fellow, then something would happen to the card as well. You could get rid of an index card, you could burn it or shred it or chew it up and swallow it, but once it was on a computer it had eternal life.

The envelope also contained two small photographs, which Keller could only assume were of the same man. One was taken from the side, and showed him walking along a street, with a shoe repair shop behind him. The other was full-face, and had probably been taken at fairly close range and with a flash, because it had caught the subject blinking. If the subject had any strong features, neither photograph had managed to capture them. You couldn’t use them to make an ID, just to rule out other fish that might turn up in the net.

Keller, who hadn’t needed to use the toilet, flushed it anyway in the interests of verisimilitude. The rushing water proved a stimulus, and he used the toilet after all, and then flushed it again, which was rather more verisimilitude than the occasion would seem to require. Way more, he found upon exiting the stall, as he seemed to be the only person in the restroom.

He walked away, frowning.

His Cheyenne flight was on a regional carrier, and the plane was a small one, with minimal capacity for overhead luggage storage. Most of the passengers had to check their putative carry-ons at the gate, and Keller, who’d checked his all the way through, felt he was ahead of the game.

The pilot spent most of the hour apologizing for the rough air, which didn’t seem all that rough to Keller. The landing was certainly smooth enough. He collected his bag, picked up the car Hertz had waiting for him. It was a perky little Toyota, slate blue in color, and it had a GPS system, but Keller didn’t have an address to program into it, so he just followed the signs to the motel strip on West Lincolnway. Ten or a dozen of them huddled there, like cattle bracing against a storm, and he passed three for no particular reason before pulling into a La Quinta.

It seemed to him he’d stayed at a La Quinta not too long ago, but he couldn’t remember where, or whether he’d liked it. He tried phrases in his mind: Oh, La Quinta, that was the nice clean one. Oh, La Quinta, with the moldy carpet. One seemed as likely as the other, and what difference did it make? If this one had a moldy carpet, or a flickering TV, or a bad smell, well, he’d go to the one next door.

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