Hit Me Page 32

It had struck Denia Soderling as a perfectly reasonable solution, and it even seemed to make sense to Dot, although she’d have been just as happy to see him back home in Louisiana. But why couldn’t his mother seem to grasp it? He marshaled his facts and restated his arguments, and the next thing he knew it was morning.


Denia Soderling must have heard him pull into the drive, because she met him at the front door with a cup of coffee. “I know you want to get right to work on the stamps,” she told him.

He set himself up in the stamp room, with a pad and pencil close at hand, along with his tongs and a box of small glassine envelopes. And he’d brought his own Scott Classic catalog along; he used it not only as a price guide but as a checklist, circling the number of each new acquisition, so that it served as a full inventory of his collection.

The bookcase full of albums was daunting, but you had to start somewhere, and he began with Italy and Colonies. He opened it to the Italian Aegean Islands. But for stamp collecting, Keller figured he wouldn’t know a thing about the Turco-Italian War of 1911–12, which ended with Italy in control of three provinces in Libya and thirteen islands in the Aegean Sea. The largest island was Rhodes, which he figured most people had probably heard of, though they might have trouble finding it on a map. The others were Calchi, Calino, Caso, and Coo, Lero, Lisso, and Nisiro, Patmo and Piscopi, and Scarpanto, Simi, and Stampalia, and it had taken many hours at his desk to enable Keller to reel them off like that.

Turkey officially ceded the islands to Italy in 1924, under the Treaty of Lausanne, but as early as 1912 the Italians had begun overprinting stamps for use there, and each island had its own stamps. One island’s stamps looked rather like another’s, the overprints constituting the only difference, but Keller liked them, and some of the early issues, though priced at only a few dollars apiece, were virtually impossible to find.

They were well represented in Jeb Soderling’s collection. Keller, tongs in hand, went to work, selecting a stamp, slipping it into a glassine envelope, noting its catalog number and price. Calchi 5, $3.25. Calino 4–5, $6.50. Caso, same numbers, same value, and Soderling also had the Caso Garibaldi issue, the only Garibaldi set Keller still needed. Caso 17–26, unused, lightly hinged: $170.

And so on.

There was a moment when he sensed Denia Soderling’s presence in the room, but by the time he looked up she was gone, and a fresh cup of coffee had replaced the empty one. He was working his way through French Colonial issues by then, and got all the way to an early overprinted issue from Gabon, when she returned to ask if he’d like to break for lunch.

“In a few minutes,” he said, without raising his eyes from the stamp. Then he forgot about her, and about lunch, and the next thing he knew the door had opened and closed again, just barely registering on his consciousness, and there was a tray at the far end of the desk holding a plate of sandwiches and a glass of iced tea.

He forced himself to take a break, ate the sandwiches, drank the iced tea. Away from the stamps, even for the short time he spent eating his lunch, his mind returned to the burned-out suburban home a hundred miles to the south. He’d caught a Denver newscast on the motel’s TV before breakfast, read a morning paper while he ate his breakfast, and as far as he could make out the situation was essentially unchanged. Richard Hudepohl remained in critical condition, a fire department spokesman attributed the fire’s rapid devastation to the use of “multiple accelerants strategically deployed,” and Joanne Hudepohl, having released a statement through an attorney, seemed to have lawyered up.

No concern of his, Keller assured himself. It was impossible to keep from thinking about it, but there was nothing to do about it, and it vanished from his mind the moment he returned to the stamps.

It was hard to know when to stop. Jeb Soderling’s collection had no end of stamps lacking in Keller’s, but it wasn’t his intention to go through it like locusts through a field of barley. He worked diligently, keeping a running tally as he went along.

At one point he looked over at the window and was surprised to note that day had apparently turned to night. He hadn’t glanced at his watch, and didn’t do so now. He told himself it was time he got out of there, but first there was one more album he ought to have a look at…

By the time he emerged from the stamp room, it was almost ten o’clock. He was pretty sure Denny’s would be open, not that he felt much like eating.

But the dining room table was set for two, and before he knew it she had steered him to a chair and suggested he pour the wine. While he filled their glasses from the opened bottle of California Cabernet, she brought their dinner to the table—a tossed salad in a large wooden bowl, a pot of chili.

He’d been ready to apologize for his lack of appetite, but once he got a whiff of the chili he had nothing to apologize for. He polished off one bowl and let himself be talked into another.

“I know beer’s the natural accompaniment to chili,” she said, “but my husband preferred wine. He said a full-bodied red transported the dish from a West Texas juke joint to a three-star restaurant.”

“It’s great chili,” Keller said.

“The secret’s the cumin,” she said, “except it’s not much of a secret, because you can smell it, can’t you? But there is a secret. Would you like to know what it is?”


“Coffee. Leftover coffee, although I suppose you could make a pot for the occasion if you didn’t have any left over. You simmer the beans in it. You can’t taste it, can you? I can’t, not even if I know it’s there. But it is there, and it makes all the difference.”

Over coffee—in china cups, not in their chili—he told her that he’d finished selecting the stamps that would constitute his commission on the sale. He estimated the fair market value of what he’d picked out at around $50,000, though of course the book value was a good deal higher than that.

The stamps, he added, were in the shoe box she’d given him that morning. And the box would remain in the stamp room until it was time for him to take it back to New Orleans.

“Of course,” she said. “It wouldn’t be safe to leave it in your motel room.”

Keller supposed that was true enough, although he hadn’t even thought of that aspect of it. The stamps weren’t his yet, and wouldn’t be until the rest of the collection was sold.

“And that brings up another question,” she said. “We’ll have a stamp dealer here on each of the next three days, and I don’t suppose they’ll breeze in, flip through albums for half an hour, and breeze out again.”

Keller agreed that it would take each dealer the better part of a day.

“And you’ll be here while they are? Not that I wouldn’t be safe, but—”

“Whenever somebody’s looking at the stamps,” he said, “I’ll be in the room with him.”

“Today’s Sunday, so Monday Tuesday Wednesday, and then you’d fly back on Thursday.”

He nodded. He’d booked his flight as soon as he’d confirmed the appointments with the three dealers.

“Well, isn’t it a nuisance having to drive back and forth each day? Not to mention the waste of money? I’m sure the guest-room bed is at least as comfortable as you’d get in a motel room, and the coffee’s better. I would think you’d get more rest without the traffic noise, too. You could stay here tonight, as late as it is, and tomorrow you could fetch your things and check out of your room. Doesn’t that make sense?”


Keller, back at La Quinta, heard the phone ring once as he emerged from the shower. When it didn’t ring a second time, he reached for a towel and dried off, then found his cell phone on the dresser. It was turned off, so he turned it on to find out who’d called. There weren’t any calls, and even if there had been, how could he have heard the ring if the phone was turned off?

He picked up the room phone and rang the front desk, where a man who sounded as though he had better things to do informed him there had been no calls to his room. Keller hung up and worked on the puzzle for a moment before he remembered he had another phone, the one he used only for conversations with Dot.

But that phone often went unused for weeks on end, and he kept it turned off unless he was expecting a call or had one to make. Where was it, anyway?

He couldn’t seem to find it, and decided that was ridiculous, because he knew it was here, in this small room. Hadn’t he just heard it ring?

If it rang once, it could ring again, and couldn’t he make that happen? All he had to do was use his other phone to call his own number.

But he couldn’t do that, he realized when he had his regular phone in hand, his thumb poised over the numbers. Because, of course, he didn’t know his own number, and had never added it to his speed dial. Why would he? He never had occasion to call it himself, or to give it out to others. Only Dot used it, and only for calls that had to be kept private.

So much for that shortcut. He had a phone he couldn’t locate, and it was somewhere within earshot, but he couldn’t make the damn thing ring. All he could do was keep looking for it, knowing it was there, drawing precious little joy from the knowledge, and wishing it would ring.

It rang.

And, of course, there it was on the desk, invisible beneath a complimentary copy of Cheyenne This Week, which he’d picked up and paged through and tossed aside earlier. Evidently he’d tossed it right on top of his phone, but it had landed in such a way that it looked to be lying flat, an illusion that the ringtone instantly dispelled.

“Hello,” he said.

“Well, hello yourself,” Dot said. “Are you all right? You sound as though you just ran up three flights of stairs.”

“I’m fine.”

“Whatever you say, Pablo.”


“You’re still there, right? Counting stamps?”

“I’m here, but I’m not counting anything.”

“Not even your blessings? Well, whatever you do with stamps. I don’t suppose you lick them, but then neither does anybody else these days, not since the Post Office switched from lick-and-stick to whatever they call the new ones.”


“Catchy. When’s the last time you actually licked a stamp, Pablo?”

He did so whenever he had a letter to mail, but Dot didn’t need to hear about discount postage. “It’s been a while,” he said, “but why are you calling me Pablo?”

“To keep from calling you by name.”


“It’s reflexive,” she said. “I have this habit of calling you by name, using your name the way other people use commas. Not your new name. The old one, the one that’s one silly little vowel away from your occupation.”


“I guess there’s nobody who calls you that anymore, is there?”

Julia did, sometimes. She’d known him before he’d picked the name Nicholas Edwards off a child’s tombstone, and like everyone else she’d called him by his last name, Keller. She never slipped and called him Keller in front of other people, and he didn’t think Jenny had ever heard the name spoken, but when they were making love, or when she was in the mood to make love, all at once he was Keller again.

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