Hit Me Page 34

When the door closed behind him, Keller whipped out his phone and called Dot. As soon as she answered he said, “The fire was supposed to kill them both. Maybe the whole family, but let’s say the other guy knew about the Friday night sleepovers. What he didn’t know was it was going to turn into Girls’ Night Out. He thought he’d get Mr. and Mrs. H. Gave her plenty of time to get home, spread his accelerant, set a timer, took off.”


“You figured all that.”

“Pretty much. She hired you, and somebody else hired the other guy. If you’d gotten there first, what do you suppose the other guy would have done?”

“What I’ll do,” he said. “Go home. Why should we care who did what and why, Dot?”

“We shouldn’t.”

“And yet we do,” he said.

“So it appears. I’ve got an idea, I’ll talk to you—”

“Later,” he said, and rang off even as Griffey opened the door.

“A sealed bid,” E. J. Griffey said, brandishing an envelope with his firm’s name and address in its upper left corner. Collectors of commercial covers called that sort of printed return address a corner card, a term that had always struck Keller as curious, a bit of philatelic whimsy, an insistence on employing a vocabulary that was as esoteric as thieves’ argot. Covers, corner cards…

“Now I have a suggestion,” the little man was saying, his voice a little more forceful though still low in volume. He and Keller had joined Denia Soderling in the parlor, where the three glasses of red wine she’d poured remained untouched. “What I recommend is that you open this envelope now. You’ll see a figure which I think will please you, and which I suspect is higher than any other bid you’re likely to receive. But if you open the envelope now and accept the bid on the spot as a preemptive offer, thus enabling me to make immediate arrangements for packing and shipping, I’ll raise my own bid by ten percent.”

He expanded on the subject, countering their objections. The other bidders would be disappointed? Why, this sort of thing happened all the time. They’d get over it.

Keller took the envelope from him, weighed it in his hand as if to assess its contents. “I think we’ll stay with the original plan,” he said. “Three sealed bids, and we’ll open them all at the same time, and the high bid gets the collection.”

Griffey started to offer an objection, then took another direction. “Suit yourselves,” he said. “I’m confident my bid will turn out to be the high one. When that comes to pass, just remember you could have had ten percent more.”

“My turn to make a suggestion,” Keller said, and noted with satisfaction the quick flash of surprise on Griffey’s face. “Raise your own bid.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You’ve just established that you’re willing to pay ten percent more than the sum you wrote down. That was a nice tactic, but now that it hasn’t worked, do you want to risk losing the collection because you didn’t submit your highest offer?”

Griffey stared at him for a long moment, and all that showed on his face was the effort it took to keep it expressionless. Then he snatched the envelope out of Keller’s hand and marched into the stamp room with it.

He returned, envelope in hand. “My card’s in here,” he announced, “along with my firm’s bid. I think…well, never mind what I think. I assume you’ll open all the bids the day after tomorrow. Please call right away to let us know that our bid was high.”

Or that it wasn’t, Keller thought, as his hostess showed E. J. Griffey to the door.


Keller’s room was on the second floor, just to the left of the staircase. Even as the sound of Griffey’s rented car was dying in the distance, she’d said that he’d probably want to freshen up before dinner, and suggested he get his bag from the Toyota. Had he even mentioned that he’d packed and left the motel? Or had she just assumed it?

Either way, here he was in a guest room, with a large four-poster topped by a patchwork quilt. The design, squarely geometric, looked Amish to him, but he didn’t know much about quilts. Nor, he supposed, did he know much about stamps, not in comparison to a fellow like E. J. Griffey, who could flip through a few dozen albums in a matter of hours and come up with a professional assessment of their value.

On the other hand, what did E. J. Griffey know about fashioning a length of picture-hanging wire into a garrote?

After a shower and a change of clothes, Keller got his regular cell phone from his suitcase and called Julia. The brief conversation was ordinary enough, but he felt oddly detached from it. Should he mention that he’d relocated to the Soderling home? It wasn’t information she needed, he hadn’t bothered to tell her the name of his motel in the first place, but even so…

He called Dot on the Pablo phone. No answer, and after the fourth ring a male voice, computer-generated, invited him to leave a message. He rang off.

“I didn’t know what to do while the two of you were in the stamp room,” she said. “I would have gone for a ride, but somehow I felt I ought to be here, although I can’t think why. So I cooked.”

She’d prepared coq au vin. The coq, she told him, had grown up a mile and a half away, where he and his flock mates ranged free and enjoyed an organic diet. The vin was the same Pommard they were drinking. Jeb had enjoyed establishing a wine cellar, and ordered cases from a wine merchant on New York’s Madison Avenue.

She’d changed for dinner. She’d changed the blouse and slacks for a simple black dress that showed a hint of décolletage.

And she was wearing perfume. He caught the scent when she came around behind him to pour his coffee.

“That Mr. Griffey,” she said. “There was something very forbidding about that little man. I’d have been at a loss, trying to deal with him on my own. But you handled him brilliantly. You could see it in his face, that he’d been outmaneuvered and didn’t know how to respond. And he sat right down and raised his own bid.”

“Or didn’t,” Keller said. “For all we know he came back with the same envelope and never opened it.”

“Do you think that’s what he did?”

He shook his head. “I nicked the original envelope with my thumbnail,” he said, “and the envelope he came back with didn’t have the nick.”

“How on earth did you think to do that?”

“I don’t know,” he said, “and I’m not sure it made any difference, but he must have changed his bid, and he certainly wouldn’t have lowered it. I wonder how much he raised it.”

“What figure do you think he wrote down?”

“I couldn’t even guess.”

“More than a quarter of a million?”

He nodded.

“So you won’t get to buy Jeb’s stamps.”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Should we open the envelope? We could steam it open and reseal it. No one would ever know.”

“We could cut it open,” he said, “because no one but the two of us will ever see the bids anyway. And they’re your stamps, so you get to decide, but I’d rather stick to the script.”

“And open them all at once,” she said. “Like kids on Christmas? So as not to spoil the surprise?”

He thought about it. “That might be some of it,” he admitted, “but I have the sense that we’re in a stronger position if we don’t know. I can’t explain why, but—”

“No one can read our minds,” she said, “if there’s nothing in them. It’s fine with me, Nicholas. I’d rather go with your instincts than mine.”


A few sentences later, almost to make a point, he managed to use her name in conversation. Mrs. Soderling.

“Denia,” she said at once. “You’re my houseguest now, and my negotiating partner. You can’t go on calling me Mrs. Soderling.”


“It’s an unusual name, I know, but it’s better than the one given me at birth. Can you guess?”

He couldn’t.

“Gardenia,” she said. “Flower names are all right, but some are better than others. Rose and Iris, for instance, are less of a burden than Pansy or, I don’t know, Forsythia?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever known a Forsythia.”

“Neither have I, but I did know a girl named Dahlia, and that wasn’t too bad. My mother wore this overbearing scent called Jungle Gardenia, and evidently it had a profound visceral effect on my father, who bought it for her by the half gallon. And insisted on it for my name. I hated it, and as soon as I was old enough I had it changed legally.”

“To Denia.”

“Yes, which I like, except for the nuisance of having to explain its derivation. I have a complicated relationship with the scent. I can’t imagine wearing it, and I find it slightly sick-making, but at the same time it smells like Mommy, and that means warmth and comfort, doesn’t it?”

“It sounds complicated.”

“It might be,” she said, “but how often do I encounter it? Not once a year, I wouldn’t think. Generally speaking, I find things don’t have to be all that complicated, Nicholas.”


“Some more wine? We really ought to finish the bottle.”

He covered his glass. “I’m already having trouble keeping my eyes open. It was oddly exhausting, sitting across the table from Mr. E. J. Griffey.”

“I can imagine.”

“And there’s a call I have to make before I turn in.”

“To New Orleans?”

To Sedona, but she didn’t need to know that. “I spoke to her earlier,” he said, “but I like to check in before I call it a day.”

“He was having an affair,” Dot said. “Why won’t you boys learn to keep it in your pants?”

Keller, sitting on the edge of the bed in the guest room, felt the rush of blood to his face.

“Pablo? You there?”

“I’m here.”

“Can you talk?”

“I’m the one who called,” he reminded her. “I’m in the client’s house, but I’m alone.”

“You’re in the client’s—oh, the stamp lady. Not the client client.”

“Who doesn’t have a house in the first place.”

“Not anymore. Well, he was having an affair, he had a tootsie on the side, and he wanted a divorce. And he was talking about a custody fight, and bringing up a lot of dirt on her, because she’d had an affair of her own a few years ago, which she regretted and thought they’d gotten past, and now he threw it in her face, and she just wanted him dead, the son of a bitch, and she remembered the man her father introduced her to, and—well, the rest is pretty much the way we figured it.”

“Jesus,” he said. “You got all this from the broker? From one of the cutout men?”

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