Hit Me Page 35

“No, of course not. She wouldn’t spew all of this to some guy, and if she did he’d never pass it on to me.”


“She told me. But can we cut to the chase, Pablo? She wants to call it off.”

“The client.”


“Wants to call off—”

“The contract. She wanted us to do something, remember? And now she’s changed her mind.”

“When did this happen?”

“In his hospital room, seeing him all helpless there with tubes coming out of him. Do you want to know exactly what passed through her mind?”


“Okay, she’s in his room, he’s unconscious, nobody’s around, and it occurs to her that she can finish the job and no one will be the wiser. Pinch a tube shut, pull one out, pour something in his IV—there’s a dozen ways to do it, and she realizes she loves him and she wants him to pull through. I’ll spare you the emotional part, that comes under the heading of girl talk, but the bottom line is she loves him again and just wants him to live and be hers.”


“You know, same reason you’re Pablo, I ought to be somebody else. You’re not as addicted to saying names as I am, but now and then it slips out. How’s Hilda?”


“If you have to call me something, Pablo, well, Hilda’ll do. No, come to think of it, it won’t. It’s too close to my official name these days. Make it Flora, okay?”

“If you say so. How did she get in touch with you?”

“She didn’t, Pablo. I got in touch with her. How? I picked up the phone and called her.”

“Who gave out her number?”

“Nobody, but how many Joanne Hudepohls are there? Her cell phone’s listed, so I dialed it, and she answered on the first ring. You’d have thought she was waiting for my call.”

“What phone did you—”

“Easy there, Pablo. A new phone, bought for cash and unregistered. Same as this one, but just for her. And I got her number via a Google search, and I used a computer in a Kinko’s in Flagstaff. There won’t be any trail, paper or electronic, and as soon as all of this is over the Joanne phone goes in a storm drain.”

“Maybe you should ditch it now.”

“I might need to talk to her some more.”

He frowned. “Why, for God’s sake?”

“Once she got that we didn’t burn her house down—”

“She knew somebody else did. And she only made that one call to her father’s buddy.”


“So she knows about the other guy, and that somebody else hired him.” He thought for a moment. “The girlfriend?”

“Gotta be. Or the girlfriend’s jealous husband.”

“The girlfriend’s married?”

“That I couldn’t tell you. But the girlfriend has to be the connection.”

“And the girlfriend, and thus the other guy, might not feel the game is over.”

“Right. They might try again. She’s hired people from a security agency to protect her husband in the hospital, and she’ll keep them on after he’s released.”

“Assuming he pulls through,” he said. “But why do we care?”

“Pablo, that sounds so cold. ‘Why do we care?’ A man’s life hangs in the balance, and his wife is in peril, and you ask a question like that.”

“And if I wait long enough,” he said, “maybe you’ll answer it.”

“Opportunity,” she said. “I hear it knocking. Pablo, get some rest. I’ll get back to you.”


He spent a restless night, got up early, and found coffee poured and breakfast ready when he got downstairs. She said she hoped he liked huevos rancheros, and told him the eggs were from the same organic poultry farm that had supplied last night’s free-range cockerel.

“One-stop shopping,” she said. “I’d call it a Mexican breakfast, but according to Jeb, a Mexican breakfast is a cigarette and a glass of water. Do you suppose that’s an ethnic slur? I suppose I could ask Rosita.”


“That’s right, you haven’t met her. She stays out of sight, and she’s straightening your room even as we speak. More coffee?”

No perfume this morning, and no décolletage. There’d been something on offer during the dinner hour, and he’d found a way to let it go without giving offense, and he had every reason to feel relieved.

But was it relief that he felt? Not entirely. He’d dodged a bullet, but what he felt was the skimpy self-satisfaction of a dieter who’d passed up dessert.

Martin Rombaugh struck Keller as a man who’d never passed up a dessert in his life, and there was nothing skimpy about his self-satisfaction, or his satisfaction with life in general. He was a big man with a hearty laugh, and he showed up fifteen minutes early for his ten thirty appointment.

“Afraid I’d have trouble finding the place,” he said, “and then I didn’t. Your directions turned out to be foolproof. Marty Rombaugh, representing Colliard and Bowden, and Lou Colliard specifically asked me to convey his sympathies, Mrs. Soderling. He’d met your husband on several occasions, he’d valued him as a customer, and…”

There was more, but Keller tuned it out. Soon enough they were seated across from each other in the stamp room, but Rombaugh had said yes to coffee, and hadn’t protested when a plate of cookies accompanied it. “Homemade,” he announced, after a bite. “Have one?”

Once again, Keller passed up dessert.

The hours went more quickly in Rombaugh’s company than in Griffey’s. The big man paged through albums as rapidly, made notes as cryptically, but kept up a running conversation throughout. He’d been ten when he started collecting stamps, joined a local stamp club where he could trade off his duplicates, decided to specialize in U.S. and took a table at a stamp show to sell off his foreign, spent so much time at a downtown stamp shop that they gave him a job, and had explored many facets of the hobby and business ever since, all of which he was apparently eager to share with his new friend Nicholas.

It could have been tiring for Keller, but he realized early on that he wasn’t required to comment. When he did, Rombaugh was happy to engage in the back-and-forth of dialogue, but when Keller remained silent, Rombaugh was just as content to keep up the conversation on his own.

Keller found most of it interesting, and even informative. And, when his attention flagged, he could safely let his mind go elsewhere.

When his phone vibrated, Keller excused himself and took the call in the far corner of the stamp room. Rombaugh closed one stamp album and reached for another, clearly wrapped up in his task.

Should he leave the room? Rombaugh wouldn’t hear anything, he decided, and wouldn’t know what he was listening to even if he did.

He said, “Yes?”

“There’s someone in the room.”

“Sort of.”

“How can someone be sort of in the room? Never mind, you can’t talk freely, and I don’t need to know. You got a pencil handy?”

“A pen.”

“That’ll do. If there’s anything you need to erase just cross it out. Meanwhile, write this down.”

She read out an address and he dutifully jotted it down on the back of Martin Rombaugh’s business card.

“The girlfriend,” she went on. “Her name is Trish Heaney, which I suppose must be short for Patricia. The Trish part, I mean. I don’t think the Heaney part is short for anything.”


“Though I suppose it could be short for Heaniapopoulos. You don’t think that’s funny, do you?”


“The girlfriend’s got a boyfriend. Not the one we know about, with the tubes coming out of him. This guy’s more of an ex-boyfriend, the kind of old pal a gal might call on in a pinch. His name’s Tyler Crowe. He’s younger than Hudepohl, but prison ages a man, and you’ll never guess what he did that got him three years in Cañon City.”

He could guess, but didn’t want to say the word.

“Arson. You see where this is going, Pablo?”

Like Griffey, Marty Rombaugh didn’t want to interrupt his work for lunch. But neither did he care to miss a meal, and polished off the sandwiches Denia provided.

A little after three he pushed back his chair and heaved a sigh. “Stamps,” he said. “Just little pieces of paper, but they’re more than that, aren’t they?”

“They are.”

“You didn’t know Soderling, did you?”


“Neither did I, but you can tell a lot about a man from his collection. This was an orderly and systematic gentleman, but there was a lot of romance there as well, a little dash, a certain flair. I can’t tell you how I know that, but I do.”

“I know what you mean.”

“You’re not from around here.”

“My wife and I live in New Orleans.”

He’d mentioned his wife to keep the man from jumping to a certain conclusion, and he saw the word register. “You’re basically a friend of a friend,” Rombaugh said, “advising the lady on the disposal of her husband’s holdings.”

“I buy and sell some,” Keller said. “Someone recommended me, but when I saw the extent of the collection—”

“You figured deeper pockets were required. I suppose the lady will be compensating you for your trouble.”

The sentence didn’t have a question mark at its end, but invited a response. Keller didn’t supply one.

“Who’d they send yesterday, if you don’t mind my asking? I bet it was the Griff, wasn’t it?”

“If you mean Mr. Griffey—”

“Yeah, the little guy. He and I spend our lives tagging each other all around the country. All those Russian locals, the zemstvo issues, they might as well be from Uranus for all he knows about them.” He paused, frowned. “That’s the planet Uranus, but when you just say it, well, it comes out off-color. I should have said Jupiter. It’s less open to misinterpretation.”

“Well,” Keller said.

“He’d lowball you on the Russian stamps. Other hand, he’d go high on some of the Czech and Polish overprints, on account of there’s forgeries there that he probably wouldn’t spot. Including one or two that Kasimir Bileski signed off on.”


“Just for curiosity, what did the Griff offer you?”

“He gave us a sealed bid.”

“So? Come on, don’t tell me you didn’t sneak a peek.”

“We didn’t.”

“Playing it absolutely straight, eh? Well, cards on the table. This is a very sweet little collection, and not even all that little, and my own compensation is tied to what I bring in to my employers. So what can you and I do just between ourselves to make that happen?”

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