Hit Me Page 30

The woman behind the desk had an easy manner that inspired confidence, and the room she gave him was perfectly acceptable. He unpacked, shifting his stamp tongs to his breast pocket.

His cell phone got a signal right away. His first call was to Julia, just to let her know he’d survived a couple of hours in the air. She didn’t offer to put Jenny on, nor did he ask. He was working, and that part of his life could wait until the job was done.

He made a second call, to Denia Soderling, who immediately invited him to dinner. There was enough for two, she said, if he hadn’t eaten. He said he was tired, which was true enough, and that it would be better to start fresh in the morning. He wrote down the directions she gave him, and they agreed that he’d show up around nine thirty or ten.

He ate across the street, at a family restaurant that proclaimed itself locally owned and operated. He had shrimp in a basket, which didn’t strike him as all that local, and a small garden salad, and drank a glass of iced tea. The menu promised him unlimited refills on the iced tea, but one glass was plenty.

Back in his room, he took a shower and decided his shave could wait until morning. The TV had a satellite connection, and got what seemed to be an infinite number of channels. He put on CNN while he booted up his laptop and checked his email. No email of note, and no news he cared about. He turned everything off and went to bed.

Ten hours later he was eating breakfast down the street at Denny’s. An hour and a half after that he was looking at stamps.


The first thing that struck Keller, when Denia Soderling showed him into her husband’s den, was that no one could have designed a better room for a stamp collector. Walls paneled in knotty cedar, half a dozen rifles and shotguns in a glass-fronted cabinet, a pair of swords crossed on one wall, a matched pair of dueling pistols to their right. A picture window opened onto a rail-fenced paddock, where a pair of horses as well matched as the pistols stood enjoying the morning sun. And the window faced north, Keller saw, so the sun wouldn’t come into the room and cause trouble.

One of a pair of glass-fronted bookcases held books unrelated to stamp collecting, most of them history, along with a dictionary of quotations and a few volumes of poetry. The other case contained the owner’s philatelic library. There was a full set of the Scott catalogs, each volume two or three years old, and there were other catalogs as well, Michel and Yvert and Gibbons and more. And the shelves were filled with books and pamphlets on one stamp-related subject or another. The majority dealt with European nations and their colonies, but Keller spotted Michael Laurence’s study of the ten-cent covers of 1869. He’d almost bought the book himself, even though he didn’t collect U.S. issues and had no real interest in the subject. J. S. Soderling had evidently had the same impulse, and acted on it.

The second thing Keller realized, and he did so even as he was looking around and taking everything in, was that it shouldn’t have been necessary for him to check his carry-on bag. Bringing his own tongs to a room like this had to be right up there with carrying coals to Newcastle.

He confirmed this when he opened the bookcases where the stamp albums were housed. One shelf held the tools of the well-equipped philatelist, and Soderling had equipped himself fully. There were magnifiers and watermark detectors and guillotine-style mount cutters and, not surprisingly, an even dozen pairs of tongs. There were tongs with pointed tips, with blunt tips, with spade-shaped tips, with rounded tips. There were tongs with angled tips, for getting at otherwise inaccessible stamps, and tongs with their arms angled in the middle, which no doubt made them particularly well suited for some special purpose, although Keller couldn’t think what it might be.

And then there were the stamps. The albums stood up in rows—France and Colonies, Portugal and Colonies, Italy and Colonies, Germany and Colonies. Russia. Eastern Europe. No U.S. that he could see, and no British Empire, and no Latin America, either. No Asia or Africa, aside from the colonial issues. But all of continental Europe was there, from Iceland and Denmark clear across to Russia and Turkey, and the albums filled two large bookcases. Most of them were from the Scott Specialized series, but there were leather-bound stock books as well, and blank albums.

“It’s overwhelming,” Denia Soderling said, and Keller was surprised to realize she was in the room with him. They’d entered it together, but he’d been so transported by the room and its contents that he’d lost track of her. But there she was, a tall and slender woman with just a touch of gray in her dark hair.

“It’s quite a room,” Keller said.

“Jeb loved it. If he wasn’t at the desk working on his stamps he’d be in the leather chair with his feet up, reading about some battle in the Thirty Years’ War. Or the Hundred Years’ War, I’m afraid I can never keep them straight.”

“One was longer.”

“Once a war lasts thirty years,” she said, “I can’t see that another seventy would make much of a difference. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come into this room since Jeb passed. I can’t keep from coming in, and I can’t make myself stay for more than a few minutes. Do you know what I mean?”

He nodded.

“I tried to look at the stamps. And I thought he might have left a letter for me, telling me what to do with them. I couldn’t find anything. And of course there were all those letters from all those dealers. Overwhelming, all of it.”

“I can imagine.”

“Now you’re going to want to spend some time just looking, aren’t you? And you don’t need me watching over your shoulder, and frankly I’d just as soon not spend any more time in this room than I have to. In fact, I think I’ll go out and ride for an hour. I try to ride every day. I think it’s good for me, physically and emotionally, and I know it’s good for the horses.”

Keller voiced his agreement without being at all certain what he was agreeing with. Her words had washed over him without entirely registering. Something was evidently good for the horses, and it seemed safe to be in favor of it.

He carried the first volume of Portugal and Colonies to the desk and opened it.

At one point the door opened, although he never heard it. Then she was at his side, announcing that she’d brought him a cup of coffee. It was black, she said, but if he took cream or sugar—

He told her black was fine. She told him to let her know when he was ready for a lunch break, and he said he would.

She withdrew, leaving the coffee where he could reach it but far enough away so he’d be unlikely to knock it over. Well, she’d probably brought coffee to her husband in similar circumstances. She’d had plenty of time to work out just where to put the cup.

And coffee was just the ticket. He could use a cup of coffee, no question about it.

First, though—

By the time he reached for the coffee, it was cold.

“Are you sure you won’t have another sandwich, Mr. Edwards?”

“No, I’m fine,” he said.

She’d served him lunch at a glass-topped table on the back patio, where the view was the same as the one from the stamp room’s window. The two horses were keeping each other company in the paddock. Both were chestnut geldings, and wonderfully gentle, she’d told him, and added that she’d been out for an hour on the one with the star on his forehead. And did he ride, by any chance?

He shook his head. “Stamps keep me busy,” he said.

“They certainly kept Jeb busy,” she said, “although he was always eager to spend plenty of time in the saddle.” The double entendre was clearly unintentional, and she colored when she realized what she’d said. Keller, who’d been about to suggest she call him Nicholas, decided they’d be better off staying with Mr. Edwards and Mrs. Soderling for the time being.

He said, “About the stamps.”


“Do you have any sense of what you’d like to get for them?”

“Well, as much as I can.”

“Of course.”

“I know Jeb put a good deal of money into his collections. His line of business was quite volatile, he had interests in oil and cattle and real estate, so we’d be rich one day and broke the next and rich again the day after. When there was plenty of money he’d buy stamps, and when his cash flow tightened up he’d bide his time.”

“Did he keep records of what he spent?”

“I don’t believe so. He got a lot of his income in the form of cash, so he preferred to pay for his stamps that way. Something to do with taxes, I suppose.”

And the nonpayment thereof, Keller thought.

“He said stamps were an investment, that the better ones would go up in value. But he also said it wasn’t like the stock market, that you couldn’t expect to get close to retail when you sold. And there was one time when he talked about selling.”


“When the market crashed a few years ago. ‘Maybe I’ll sell the stamps,’ he said. ‘That’d keep us going a while, anyway.’ But I don’t think he was serious, and nothing ever came of it. You asked me if I had any idea what they’re worth. I don’t, not really, but I would think it would come to six figures, wouldn’t you?”

He took a moment before answering. Then he said, “I could make a phone call right now, and move some money into my checking account. And then I could write you a check for a quarter of a million dollars. I’d be running a certain risk, because there are rare stamps that haven’t been authenticated by experts, and they might or might not turn out to be genuine. It’s a chance I’m prepared to take. But I don’t think it would be the best deal for you.”

“Because it might be worth more.”

“Possibly a great deal more,” he said. “I only collect stamps up to 1940, and your husband’s collections go all the way to the present. The modern material’s out of my area of expertise. And in some of his collections, Russia in particular, there’s a ton of specialized material, imperfs and errors and other varieties.”

“He had no use for the Russians,” she said, “but he liked their stamps.”

“Well,” he said. “The point is I can make you that offer, but I’d advise you to turn it down. If this were a much smaller collection I’d take it on consignment, giving you an advance and a share in whatever I received over a certain figure. But that’s not really good, either.”

There was still some iced tea in his glass, and he took a drink of it. “Here’s what I’d propose,” he said. “I’ll act as your agent, and I’ll call the three dealers most likely to be ideal purchasers of your husband’s stamps. I’ll make appointments for them each to send a representative within the next week. Ideally we’ll have them here on three consecutive days, and we’ll get sealed bids from each of them, and the high bidder gets the collection.”

“And they’ll all be able to get someone here on the day you specify?”

“If any of them can’t,” he said, “I’ll call the next name on the list.”

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