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“And it’s not like you’re a recovering alcoholic and I’m opening wine bottles in front of you. You’re a grown-up. If you’re not interested you’ll tell me so and that’s the end of it. Keller? You still there?”

“I’m here.”

“So you are,” she said. “And yet you haven’t told me you’re not interested.”

One of his stamp albums was open on the table in front of him, and he looked at a page of Italian stamps overprinted for use in the Aegean Islands. There were a few stamps missing, and while they weren’t at all expensive they’d proved difficult to find.


“Business dried up,” he said. “There’s no financing. We can’t buy houses and we can’t sell them, and nobody’s hiring us to repair them, either, because there’s no money around.”

“Well, I’m not surprised. It’s the same everywhere. Still, you’ve got enough money to see you through, haven’t you?”

“We’re all right,” he said. “But I’ve gotten used to living on what I earn, and now I’m dipping into capital. I’m not about to run through it, there’s no danger of that, but still…”

“I know what you mean. Keller, I’ve got something if you want it. I had a guy lined up for it and I just learned he’s in the hospital, he flipped his car and they had to yank him out of there with the Jaws of Death.”

“Isn’t it the Jaws of Life?”

“Whatever. His own jaw is about the only part of him that didn’t get broken. I guess he’ll live, and he may even walk again, but there’s no way he can get it all together by the end of the month and spare my client the agony of divorce.”

“And the heartbreak of community property.”

“Something like that. It has to happen before the first of April, and either I find somebody who can take care of it or I have to send back the money. You probably remember how much I like doing that.”


“Once I have it in hand,” she said, “I think of it as my money, and I hate like the devil to part with it. So what do you think? Can you get away for a few days in the next couple of weeks?”

“My calendar’s wide open,” he said. “All I’ve got is a stamp auction I was thinking about going to. That’s the weekend after next, if I go at all.”

“Where is it?”


There was a thoughtful silence. “Keller,” she said at length, “call me crazy, but I see the hand of Providence at work here.”


The Lombardy had a buffet breakfast they were proud of, and in the morning Keller went down to give it a try. The problem with buffets, he’d found, was that you wanted to get your money’s worth and wound up eating too much. He resolved not to do that, and helped himself to a moderate amount of bacon and eggs and a toasted bran muffin. When he was through he sipped his coffee and thought about the other items he’d noticed, and how good they’d looked. He sighed and went back for more.

And took another plate, as the sign advised him to. “I don’t get it,” he said to a fellow diner, a heavyset man with an oversize mustache. “Why does the state of Texas forbid me to pile new food onto an old plate?”

“Health regulation, isn’t it?”

“I guess, but why? I mean, what am I going to do, pass germs to myself?”

“Good point.”

“And this way they’ve got an extra plate to wash.”

“Even more,” the man said, “if you make enough return trips, and that smoked salmon is worth a try, believe me. They feed you a hell of a breakfast here at the Venetia. But maybe there’s another reason for fresh plates. Maybe it’s like putting new wine in old bottles.”

“Well, that’s something else I’ve wondered about,” Keller said. “I know it’s a metaphor, but what are you supposed to do with old bottles? Just throw them in a landfill?”

He went back to his table and ate everything on his plate, but didn’t even consider going back for thirds. Instead he let the waitress pour him more coffee, signed his check, and carried the coffee over to the table where the mustachioed gentleman was working on his smoked salmon.

Keller put a hand on an unoccupied chair, and the man nodded, and Keller sat down. “You’re here for the auction,” he said.

“I have that look, do I?”

He shook his head. “The hotel,” he said. “You called it the Venetia.”

“I did? Well, that’s a giveaway, isn’t it? A very philatelic slip of the tongue. Or should that be slip of the tongs?”

Because he collected stamps, Keller knew that in the mid-nineteenth century Lombardy-Venetia had been a kingdom in the north of Italy forming part of the Austrian Empire. Starting in 1850, Austria produced stamps for Lombardy-Venetia, essentially identical to regular Austrian issues but denominated in centesimi and lire and, after 1858, in soldi and florins. Then in 1859 Lombardy was annexed to Sardinia, and seven years later Venetia became a part of the kingdom of Italy.

“But for philately,” the fellow said, “I might never have heard of Lombardy or Venetia, let alone know to link the two of them with a hyphen.”

“I haven’t done much with Lombardy-Venetia,” Keller admitted. “All those reprints, and so much counterfeiting. It’s confusing, so I always find it easier to buy something else.”

“Your Lombardy-Venetia’s probably well ahead of mine, considering that I don’t own a single stamp from the benighted place. Nothing but U.S. for me, I’m afraid.”

“And that’s the one thing I don’t collect,” Keller said. “I’m worldwide, to 1940.”

“That way there’s always something for you to buy. Which is a blessing or a curse, depending how you look at it. I don’t even collect all of my own country. I did, but then I sold everything after 1900, and then I narrowed that down to the 1869 issue. I don’t know if you know the stamps…”

Keller knew them well enough to hold up his end of the conversation. By the time they left the table they were Nicholas and Michael, sharing the comfortable camaraderie of fellow hobbyists who wouldn’t be competing with one another in the auction room. In fact they wouldn’t even be occupying the room at the same time, with U.S. on the block today and the rest of the world waiting its turn.

“Stamps in the morning, covers in the afternoon,” Michael said. “There’s a block of Scott 119, the fifteen-cent type two, that I wouldn’t mind having. And this afternoon, well, this wouldn’t mean much to a nonspecialist, but…”

Keller heard him out, wished him luck.

“Ah, but what’s luck, Nick? I’m too old to chase ’em nowadays, but when I used to go out looking to pick up a woman, I’d tell myself maybe I’d get lucky. But you reach a point where getting lucky means going home alone. You know, you ought to drop by when the 1869 lots come up. Share in the drama without having a stake in the outcome. All the excitement and none of the risk—like watching a murder mystery on television.”

Keller slipped into the auction room a half hour after the start of the morning session. The first several dozen lots were nothing too exciting, job lots and accumulations, and then the first of the Postmasters’ Provisionals came up and the proceedings got more interesting. Sort of like watching a mystery on television, come to think of it.

He stayed longer than he’d planned, waiting for the large block of number 119 to be offered, and watched as his new friend hung in gamely while bidding climbed to four times the estimated value. Then Keller’s friend dropped out, and the block was knocked down to a telephone bidder.

Not quite like a murder mystery on television, because it didn’t end the way you wanted it to.

Keller slipped out of the auction room, left the hotel, and picked up his rental car. He’d brought his map along, but never took it out of his breast pocket. He had no trouble remembering the route to the house on Caruth Boulevard.

He drove past the house, taking a quick look at it, and all he really managed to establish was that it was still there. He couldn’t stake the place out and watch the comings and goings, not in this neighborhood, where a man lurking in a parked car would be reported to the police in no time at all. Nor could he park a few blocks away and approach on foot, because if there was a single pedestrian over the age of six anywhere in the area, he’d managed to keep out of Keller’s field of vision.

The right way, he thought, was to take a week or two, but the hell with that. This wasn’t some well-guarded mafioso in a walled castle, with a moat full of bent-nosed alligators. This was a woman who had no idea just how much her husband wanted to be rid of her, and no reason to fear a stranger at her door.

Keller went back to a strip mall he’d passed earlier, with a Walgreens at one end and an Office Depot at the other. Park near one and walk to the other? No, he told himself. Why bother? Nobody was going to look at his license plate, and what difference did it make if they did?

He parked in front of the Office Depot and was in and out of it in ten minutes, paying cash for the clipboard and the pad of yellow paper. Duct tape? No, not necessary. He was going to buy a pen, then remembered that he already had one of his own.

What else? A box cutter, a letter opener, something sharp and pointed? No. He had his hands, and there would be knives in the kitchen if he felt the need.

He drove back to the Walmsley house and parked in the driveway, where anyone walking by could see his car and take note of the license plate. Fat chance, he thought, and walked up to the door and rang the bell.


Maid’s day off, he thought. Getting lucky, he told himself, was when you rang a doorbell and nobody answered. That was even better than going home alone, and—

Footsteps, approaching the door. He waited for it to open, and when it didn’t he poked the bell again, and this time the door opened immediately, and he found himself looking at his own reflection in the mirror that faced the door. Just for an instant, albeit a disconcerting one; then he lowered his eyes and looked down at the Salvadoran maid.

“Ah, good morning,” he said. “Mrs. Walmsley?”

“No,” the maid said, in Spanish or English, it was impossible to tell. “Her no aquí,” she said, in a combination of the two.

“And Mr. Walmsley?”

“Him not vive aquí.”

A shake of the head, good enough in either language.

“Is anyone else at home?”

Another head shake. The simple thing to do, Keller realized, was kill the woman, stuff her in a closet—or a laundry hamper, or a big hatbox. She was innocent, but then so was Portia Walmsley, for all he knew.

But Jesus, she was so tiny.

The client, he recalled, didn’t care one way or the other about the woman. He wasn’t paying a bonus for some illegal immigrant, and—


He brandished the clipboard, gave her a look at it. He hadn’t thought to write anything on the top sheet of paper, but it didn’t matter.

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