Hit Me Page 33

But less so lately. Subtly, gradually, Nicholas was displacing Keller in the romance department, edging him out in the bedroom…

“Hence Pablo,” Dot said. “If you hate it I can probably come up with something else. I just always liked the name.”


“You hate it, don’t you?”

“It’s fine. Is that why you called? To see if I liked being called Pablo?”

“No, I just wanted to check in. I guess you’ve been keeping busy with stamps.”

“Pretty much.”

“Well, it’s not as though you missed anything. Richard Hudepohl’s still got a pulse, and nobody knows who burned his house down with him in it.”

“The wife hasn’t talked?”

“She hasn’t,” Dot said, “and I have to say I don’t blame her. I’ve been thinking about her.”


“I think she’s our client.”

“Isn’t that what we said the other day?”

“Not exactly, because at the time I thought she’d set it all up. Took the kids, left the house, and made sure she stayed away until the deed was done.”

“Makes sense.”

“It does,” she said, “except it doesn’t. Pablo, she hasn’t got a thing to wear.”


“What woman gets someone to burn down her house with all her clothes in it? That might seem like a good idea to Charles Lamb, but I bet Mrs. Lamb would see it differently. Mrs. Hudepohl, the good news is that your husband is dead. The bad news is your fifty pairs of shoes are history.”

“She had fifty pairs of shoes?”

“If she did, Pablo, she doesn’t anymore. And her husband’s not even dead.”

He thought about it. “All right,” he said. “She hired us, but while I was taking my time, somebody else went ahead and did the job. Who?”

“Suppose we just call him the other guy.”

“Okay. Who hired the other guy?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I know the wife didn’t, and she’s pissed.”


“Royally. I got a call from somebody who got a call from somebody who got a call from her. I know, it sounds like a bad song. The way she sees it, whoever burned her house down has to be the stupidest, craziest, most amateurish moron in the business.”

“Well,” Keller said, “I have to say I agree with her on that one.”

“It’s a pretty good description of our friend the other guy, isn’t it? I passed the word that it wasn’t us, so either one of the sub-brokers made more than one phone call—”

“Or someone else had the same idea she did. Are we sure she didn’t make arrangements with some joker she met in a bar, then call in a pro when she figured he wouldn’t go through with it?”

Dot was silent.

“And he went through with it after all? Except burning down the house that way called for some expert knowledge, wouldn’t you say? I certainly wouldn’t have known how to do it.”

“You wouldn’t have done it in the first place.”

“Well, there’s that. Still, does it sound like the work of some tattooed joker that you’d find on the Internet and meet in a bar?”

“Or find in a bar,” she said, “and meet on the Internet. I’ve got some calls in, Pablo, and I think I might make a few more. On the one hand, what do we care? Nobody’s asking us to give back the first payment, and there’s no way to earn the balance, so for us the war is over. Even so…”

“It’d be good to know.”

“It would,” she agreed. “I’ll be in touch. You’re with the Stamp Widow tomorrow? Keep your phone handy.”


The first stamp buyer was due at ten thirty, so Keller had a quick breakfast at Denny’s, read the Denver paper’s coverage of the Hudepohl case, and got to the Soderling house a little before ten. He wanted to make sure the fellow didn’t get there first.

The previous evening, when Mrs. Soderling proposed he stay the night and check out of his motel in the morning, he’d invented a reason why that wasn’t a good idea, some work he needed to do that very night on his computer. This morning, after his shower and shave, he packed up everything and stowed his bag in the Toyota’s trunk.

But he kept the room, and even left the DO NOT DISTURB sign on the knob so the maid wouldn’t assume he’d left early. Just keeping his options open, he told himself.

“I was up early,” he told Denia Soderling. “I’m afraid I’ve already had my breakfast.”

“But I’ll bet you can manage another cup of coffee,” she said. And he agreed that he could.

They sat together at an outdoor table, and quite out of the blue she began talking about the Hudepohl case. Had he been following it? He said he hadn’t, which eliminated the possibility that he might disclose something that hadn’t made the papers, but led her to furnish a full account of everything that had.

“That poor woman,” she said. “She’s lucky to be alive.”

“If she’d been home—”

“Exactly! And her children. They seem quite certain it’s arson, but you have to wonder.”

“I guess you do.”

“He kept tropical fish, didn’t he? I wonder if there might have been chemicals involved. Spontaneous combustion, you know.”

She topped up his cup of coffee, and when she put the pot down her hand brushed his. It might have been accidental, he told himself. Just like the fire on Otis Drive.

The stamp buyer, whose name was either Griffin or Griffith, was a short and slender man who wore a red-and-black striped vest with a black pinstripe suit. He had a narrow face, a sharp nose and sharper chin, and a full head of lustrous auburn hair, so full and so lustrous Keller was reasonably certain it was a wig. He looked as though he ought to be dealing blackjack in a casino, or touting horses at a track, and he bolstered this image when he hung his suit jacket over the back of his chair. The more you saw of his vest, the more it held your attention.

Then, as he seated himself at Jeb Soderling’s stamp table, he completed the picture with a green eyeshade. He’d turned down the offered coffee, shook off the suggestion of tea or water, and drew a pair of tongs from one vest pocket and a magnifier from another.

“Europe,” he said.

His voice was soft, and if he’d been a stage actor he’d have been inaudible past the first row. Keller, sitting just across the table from him, had to work to hear him.

“From Iceland to Turkey,” Keller said.

“Actually,” the man said, “there’s some question as to whether Iceland is in fact a part of Europe. There’s a geological fault line that runs right through the country. One side’s Europe, other’s North America. Philatelically, of course, it’s grouped with the Scandinavian countries. I don’t remember your name.”


“Edwards. Are you planning on sitting here the whole time? Because once I begin I won’t want to talk, and I won’t want to be talked to, either. I assure you I’m perfectly comfortable sitting alone with the collection.”

“I’ll stay,” Keller told him.

The man didn’t say anything. Neither did Keller, and eventually the man let himself be outwaited. He drew a breath and let it out without quite sighing.

“There are approximately a third of a million Icelanders,” he said, as softly as he said everything, “and they are all descended from five Viking men and four Irish women. If you’re going to stay here, you might as well bring me some albums.”

Keller got to his feet.

“Not Iceland,” the man said, answering a question Keller had not been about to ask. “France. I’ll begin with France.”

When he left his motel that morning, he’d set his phone—the one reserved for calls to and from Dot, the one he was already thinking of as the Pablo phone—on vibrate. He’d never done that before, and when a call actually came in it took him a moment to realize what it was. A strange sensation, really, as if a large centipede were dancing around in his breast pocket.

He withdrew to a corner of the room, pushed the appropriate button, but didn’t say anything. Neither did Dot at first, but then she said, “Pablo?”

“Yes,” he said, very softly.

“There are people around,” Dot said.


“Dangerous people? Or just ears that don’t need to hear our conversation?”


“Well, don’t put me on speakerphone, okay? I got past a few middlemen. You can forget the moron with the tattoos. Her father was a magazine distributor, dealt with some people who knew some people. Died some years ago, but a while back he introduced her to a guy, then told her he was the man if she needed some heavy lifting done. Long story short, she called the guy. Remember me? I’m Benny’s little girl, di dah di dah di dah, and he told her who to call and what to say, and she did and she did. Pablo? Are you still there?”


“Thought I lost you. Did you get all that?”


“I’d love to know what you think about it, but it’s hard to get much from a man who never says anything but yes and ears. But if the other guy wasn’t somebody that she found, that opens things up.”

“All,” Keller said.

“It opens it all up?”

It was frustrating, having to talk like this. The little man with the eyeshade seemed entirely caught up in the task at hand, which had him paging through the Benelux countries. Had he even noticed that Keller was on the phone, and could he possibly be giving any attention to the conversation?

It seemed unlikely, as softly as Keller was talking, and as preoccupied as the man was with the stamps. But anyone who spoke so softly was apt to have acute hearing, Keller figured, and along with his sharp nose and chin the guy had ears like a bat, so how could you be sure?

“Pablo? Where’d you go?”


“Why does it open it up? That’s obvious, isn’t it? But that’s not your question. Why, why, why. Why did she want him hit? Is that it?”


“Good question,” she said. “I’ll get back to you.”

The little man’s name turned out to be neither Griffin nor Griffith, but was in fact Griffey, E. J. Griffey. He had shown up at ten thirty on the dot, and was in the stamp room murmuring about Iceland well before eleven. When Denia came into the room around twelve thirty to suggest lunch, he said politely that he’d had a large breakfast and would prefer to work straight through. Then he returned to the album he was examining, and made a note in his little notebook.

Keller stayed in the stamp room and ate the sandwich she brought him. A little before two, Griffey stood up and said something Keller didn’t quite catch. He asked him to repeat it, and it turned out to be “bathroom.” Keller walked him to the door, pointed him to the room he wanted. Griffey left, and took his notebook with him.

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