Hit Me Page 31

“And you think one of them will pay significantly more than a quarter of a million dollars.”


“As to how much more—”

“I’d be guessing.”

“I understand. But that guess would be at least a half a million?”

“Probably more.”

She thought for a moment. “And if their offers turn out to be lower than you expect—”

“That won’t happen. But if it does, yes, I’ll still pay you the quarter million.”

“And you’ll be here when they come?”

“To protect your interests. Yes.”

“And what about your own interest, Mr. Edwards? You’ll be stuck in Cheyenne for a week, and of course you’ll be entitled to a portion of the price I receive, but do you have a figure in mind?”


Getting from Cheyenne to Denver was simple enough. You got on I-25 and drove south for a hundred miles, and if it took you more than an hour and a half you weren’t keeping up with the light Saturday morning traffic. He held the Toyota steady at four or five miles over the posted speed limit, thus inviting neither the attention of a highway patrolman nor the scorn of his fellow motorists.

He’d programmed the GPS with the address from the pink index card, and its soothing ladylike voice didn’t have much to say for most of the way on the interstate. She perked up as they got close to Denver, and guided him southwest on I-76 to where that highway ran into I-70. There he let her talk him through a complicated cloverleaf (“Prepare to keep to the left,” followed by a “keep to the left…”) that left him heading south on Wadsworth Boulevard.

He went on doing as instructed, until he made a turn into Otis Drive and she told him, not without a measure of self-satisfaction, “You have arrived.”

He hadn’t quite, though. Not yet, because the street number of the house to his right, conveniently painted on the curb, was 4101, and the number he’d punched into the GPS was 4132. That would put it halfway up the block and on the left-hand side.

Where there were a couple of cars parked, two of them with flashing lights mounted on their roofs. And where all those people were standing.

And where the house, on the other hand, was not.

“You hear about houses burning to the ground,” he told Dot, “but I always thought it was a figure of speech, because they never do. They burn, all right, and the property winds up being a total loss, but you still have walls standing.”

“But not this time?”

“Burned to the foundation,” he said, “which extended maybe a foot and a half above the ground, but that’s it. Don’t ask me how it happened.”

“Keller, who else am I gonna ask?”

He and Dot had cell phones that they used only to call each other, and even then only when it was important that no record of the call exist. He’d had that phone with him, but waited until he’d driven a mile or so from what used to be 4132 Otis Drive. He pulled into a strip mall and parked in front of a furniture store that had closed for the night, if not forever, and he called the one number the phone was programmed to call, and she picked up midway through the second ring.

And now he held the phone in his hand and stared at it.

“Keller? Where’d you go?”

“You thought I did it,” he said.

“Well, sure. I gave you a name and an address.”

“And a picture and a phone number.”

“Let’s just stick to the name and the address, okay? I gave them to you, and sometime last night the address ceased to exist and the name wound up in the hospital.”

“And you assumed I was responsible.”

“Put yourself in my place, Keller. What would you have thought?”

“But to burn down a whole house?”

“I know, it’s like that essay everybody had to read in high school, burning down the house to roast the pig. I forget who wrote it.”

“Charles Lamb.”

“Now how would you happen to know that, Keller? Don’t tell me, I’ll bet he’s on a stamp. Do you suppose there’s an alternate universe where Charles Pigg wrote a famous essay about lamb chops?”


“Never mind. I thought it was pretty heavy-handed for you, not your usual style. Collateral damage and all that. Though the collateral damage could have been a lot worse. Two kids, and thank God it was Friday.”


“No school on Saturday, so they were both away from the house on sleepovers. Keller, you’re right there in Denver and I’m filling you in from what I skimmed off the Internet. Here’s a radical idea. Why don’t you pick up a newspaper and call me back when you’re up to speed?”

He bought the Denver Post from a convenience store clerk who seemed anxious that Keller was about to hold her up, and relieved when he didn’t. The story wasn’t hard to find, and he read it through twice and called Dot.

“Severe injuries,” he said. “But he’s expected to live.”

“For now,” Dot said.

“He had fish tanks,” he said. “Aquariums, except I guess the plural is aquaria.”

“Thanks for pointing that out.”

“All destroyed, of course. His wife was away when it happened.”

“That’d be Joanne.”

“Joanne Hudepohl, right. She’s described as distraught.”

“There’s a surprise. Your house is gone, fish tanks and all, and your husband’s in the hospital with tubes coming out of his toes. Wouldn’t you be distraught?”

“I suppose.”

“Unless she did it,” Dot said. “That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it? And it’s what I’d have been thinking myself if I hadn’t pretty much taken it for granted that you were the one who did it. She was out chauffeuring the kids to their sleepovers, wasn’t she?”

“She dropped off her son first,” he said, “and when she delivered her daughter, the other mommy invited her in. And there were two other mommies on hand, as it was a four-girl sleepover.”

“How old were the daughters?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “What difference does it make?”

“None,” she said, “only it’s beginning to sound like a movie they were showing on cable the other night. Except those girls were college age, and they should have been ashamed of themselves. What did the four mommies do, break out the gin bottle?”

“I think it was wine. At some point she called her husband, and he told her to stay as long as she wanted because he was busy with his fish.”

“I suppose he was pasting them in an album,” she said, “like you and your stamps.”

“She called home before she left,” he said, “but when he didn’t answer she assumed he was asleep. Then she drove home in time to watch the firemen at work. They’d taken him to the hospital by then.”

“So her alibi’s solid.”

“It looks that way.”

“Just good luck that she wasn’t home herself when everything went pear-shaped.”


“I’ve been watching English mysteries on the BBC,” she said. “And once in a while an expression creeps into my speech. She wasn’t home, and neither were the kids. Just her husband.”

“And the fish.”

“Collateral damage,” she said. “Innocent byswimmers. It’s awfully damn convenient for her, isn’t it?”

“It does look that way.”

“Not that she did it, but that she had it done. I suppose the same possibility might occur to the cops.”

“You’d think so.”

“And they’ll ask her a couple of questions, and she’ll fall apart.”

“Amateurs generally do.”

“Is she our client, Dot?”

“I think she’s got to be somebody’s client,” she said, “but I don’t know if she’s ours or not. The job came from a broker who got it from a cutout, and there are too many levels for anybody to get through. There’s no way she can implicate us, in case that’s what you were wondering.”

“The question did come to mind.”

“We’re clear,” she said, “and why shouldn’t we be? You didn’t do it.”


“So what you can do now,” she said, “is catch the next plane back to Julia and Jenny. If the Fish Whisperer recovers, I’ll tell my guy that we’re keeping the advance payment and washing our hands of the whole business.”

“And if he dies?”

“Then I ask for the second payment. Why not? Who’s gonna prove you didn’t do it, or sub it out to somebody?”

“So there’s nothing I have to do?”

“Like what? Put on a white coat and hang a stethoscope around your neck? And sneak past hospital security so you can punch the guy’s ticket? He ceased to be our problem when his house went up in flames.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“Of course I’m right. Go home, Keller.”

“Well,” he said, “I can’t. Not for a while.”

Back in his room at La Quinta, Keller took a long hot shower. When he was done drying off, he tossed his towel on the floor of the shower stall.

That’s what the little card told you to do, but it was hard for Keller to get used to it. If you returned your towels to the rack, that meant you wanted to use them again. If you felt fresh towels might be a good idea, you were supposed to throw them on the floor. This would save water, the management explained, and fight global warming, so Keller figured it was the least he could do.

But he couldn’t throw a towel on the floor without imagining the look on his mother’s face.

He got into bed, letting his mind conjure up a conversation with his long-gone mother. They hadn’t had many conversations during her lifetime, and Keller had since wondered if the woman might not have been suffering from some degree of mental illness or impairment, but on balance she’d certainly been a good mother to him, and there were times when he regretted the talks they hadn’t had. So he had them now occasionally, when he waited for sleep to overtake him.

They began by talking about the towel, and why he’d thrown it on the floor. Well, if that’s what they want you to do, she said, that’s a different story. But I didn’t bring you up that way.

And then they were talking about Denia Soderling and her husband’s stamps. He’d be in Cheyenne for most of the week, he told his mother, because he’d booked appointments with three dealers who’d be sending buyers to the Soderling home on three successive days, starting Monday. That gave him all day tomorrow to go through the albums and pick out the stamps he wanted as his commission.

My stars, Johnny. You’ve gone clear across the country to spend a week in the middle of nowhere, and all you’re getting for your trouble is some stamps?

He tried to explain, but his mother wasn’t having any. If I sent you to town to sell our cow, she said, I swear you’d come home with a handful of magic beans. You remember that story? You used to love that story, and I used to love telling it to you, but I never for a moment thought you’d take it as gospel.

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