Hit Me Page 37

“I’m a little drunk, Nicholas. Why don’t you sit in that chair there? I want us to have a little conversation, if you don’t mind. That’s all I want, just a conversation, but I do want that. Is that all right?”

“Of course.”

“It has his smell. The robe, I mean. I ought to give all his clothes to the Goodwill. What am I keeping them for? But I like to smell them. And there’s a flannel shirt of his that I like to sleep in sometimes. And sometimes I put on this robe.”

He didn’t have anything to say to that.

“Widows are easy. You must have heard that, Nicholas.”


“Everybody knows it, too. I’m not sure it’s true, but I do know that everyone believes it is, or wants it to be. I’m a reasonably attractive woman, Nicholas, but I’m hardly a movie star or a supermodel. And men who I swear never looked twice at me while Jeb was alive, men who were his friends, men who are married to friends of mine…”

She shook her head, raised her glass, sipped its contents. “Passes were made,” she said. “What an odd way to put it. ‘Passes were made.’ Well, they were, verbal and physical. Made and deflected, with no embarrassment on either side. I was not tempted.”


“But I get lonely, you know. And I miss intimacy. Physical intimacy.”


“This is whiskey,” she said, brandishing her glass. “I usually have a glass or two of wine of an evening. Tonight I’ve been drinking whiskey because I wanted it to hit me, and it has. Can you tell I’m drunk?”


“I’m not slurring my words, am I?”


“Or speaking in too loud a voice, the way drunks do?”


“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Of course you’ve heard that slogan.”


“My husband and I subscribed to that philosophy. He had to do a certain amount of travel for his business, and if he had an opportunity for a dalliance, he was free to pursue it. When he was at home he was married, and faithful. When he was miles away, he was a free agent.”

“I suppose a lot of couples have that sort of understanding.”

“I would think so. I’m going upstairs now. I’m sure I’ll be able to sleep. I’m glad we’ve had this little talk, aren’t you, Nicholas?”

“Yes, I am.”

“And tomorrow’s our last day. I can’t remember the name of the buyer we’ll be seeing tomorrow.”

“I believe it’s a Mr. Mintz.”

“As in pie? Shame on me. It’s ridiculous to make jokes about a person’s name, and the person will have heard all of them, time and time again. When he’s gone we’ll open the envelopes. And you’ll be able to have dinner, won’t you?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Boeuf bourguignon, I think. With the little roasted potatoes, and a salad. Good night, Nicholas. No, I can get upstairs under my own power. It’s just my tongue that’s loosened, that’s all. I’ll see you at breakfast.”

He had a shower. He’d felt the need for one ever since he left the Arapahoe Street loft. He toweled dry, brushed his teeth.

Too late to call Julia. He’d thought of calling her from La Quinta, decided not to, and now it was too late. Was it too late to call Dot? Probably not, but he didn’t want to call Dot. It was possible she’d called him, or tried to. He’d turned his phone off earlier and had never turned it back on.

He got in bed, turned off the light. What happens in Cheyenne, he thought, stays in Cheyenne.

He didn’t think he was going to be able to sleep, and thought about putting on a robe and going downstairs to drink whiskey. But he didn’t have a robe, and didn’t much care for whiskey, or for the whole sad business of sitting up late drinking it.

He owned a robe, a very nice maroon one with silver piping. It had belonged to Julia’s father, who’d been an invalid during the short time Keller had known him. Mr. Roussard hadn’t known quite what to make of Keller, though they got along well enough, and then the man’s illness ran its course, more or less, and he was gone.

Keller had admired the robe once, and after her father’s ashes had been scattered in the Gulf, Julia got the robe dry-cleaned and told him it was his now. He liked owning it, but he hardly ever wore it. It didn’t smell of the old man, or of the sickroom, the dry cleaner had seen to that, but still it stayed unworn in Keller’s closet. Robes, pajamas, slippers, they worked fine for some men, not so much for others, and Keller—

Dropped right off to sleep, thinking of robes and slippers.


The representative of Talleyrand Stamp & Coin arrived twenty minutes late. Keller, on the patio with a second cup of coffee, watched as the fellow parked his black Lincoln Navigator in the driveway and headed for the front door, briefcase in hand. Like his predecessors, he wore a conservative suit and a tie; in manner and body type he fell somewhere between the two.

“Pierce Naylor,” he said, first to Keller, then a moment or two later to Denia Soderling. “Lew Mintz couldn’t make it. As I understand it, I’m the third stamp buyer to cross this threshold in as many days. Ma’am, you must be sick to death of the whole tribe of us.”

“It’s been no hardship for me,” she said. “Mr. Edwards has enabled me to stay very much in the background.”

“You’re fortunate,” he said. “The less time you spend around stamp buyers, the better off you are. Well, it’s my intention to make this as simple and easy for you as I possibly can, and profitable in the bargain. Unless I’ve been misinformed, you were visited in turn by E. J. Griffey and Martin Rombaugh, and I’d be surprised if either one of them got out of here in less than five or six hours.”

Keller was preparing a reply, but Naylor didn’t wait for one. “That’s far more of your time than I intend to take,” he said, “nor will I eat you out of house and home, as I’m sure Marty Rombaugh made every effort to do. One hour’s all I’ll need.”


In the stamp room, Keller indicated the chair that had served Griffey and Rombaugh in turn. Naylor stayed on his feet and walked over to the shelved stamp albums. “Spain,” he announced, and carried an album to the table. Still standing, he opened it apparently at random, studied the stamps, flipped a few pages, closed the album, and returned it to the shelf. He spent a little more time with Sweden, and not much time at all with Turkey.

“All right,” he said, after replacing the Turkish album where he’d found it. “Griffey and Rombaugh, with Griffey leading off. He’d have tried to make his offer preemptive, but that little ploy quite obviously didn’t work. And Marty would have tried to add a little sweetener. He’d top Griffey’s bid and slip you a little something for your troubles. But that couldn’t have worked, either, because the stamps are still here, aren’t they?”

Keller agreed that they were.

“How high did Griffey go? And was Marty able to top it?”

“We haven’t opened the envelopes.”

“You’re kidding,” Naylor said, and looked intently at him. “You’re serious,” he announced. “Well, that makes it interesting, doesn’t it? Why don’t we bring in Mrs. Soderling? I have a suggestion to make.”

“You want us to open both envelopes,” she said. “In front of you.”

“That’s right.”

“And you’ll guarantee to top the high bid by twenty percent. I believe that’s what you said.”

“It is.”

“But you barely looked at the stamps. How can you know they’re worth that much?”

“I know the Griff,” Naylor said. “I know Marty Rombaugh. If they say the collection’s worth X dollars, I know it’s worth that and more.”

“Twenty percent more,” Keller said.

“That’s right. I looked briefly at three albums, and that was enough to give me a sense of the quality and the degree of completeness. I’ll take the word of my predecessors as to the actual value, and at the same time I’ll trust them to have shaded their bid enough to leave ample room for profit. Enough room so that I can bid twenty percent higher and still come out ahead.”

“Or back out,” Keller said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Suppose we open the envelopes,” he said, “and one bid’s three times as high as the other, so high that you wouldn’t even want to match it, let alone top it by twenty percent. ‘My employers would never go for that,’ you’d say, and what could we do about it?”

“Not a damn thing,” Naylor allowed. “But so what? You’d go ahead and sell the stamps to Griffey or Rombaugh, whoever’s the higher, but that’s what you’d do anyway, isn’t it?”

There had to be a flaw in the argument, but Keller couldn’t spot it. Denia questioned the fairness of it. Wouldn’t they be giving Naylor an edge over the competition?

“I had that edge from the start,” he said, “because I’m the last of the three players in the game. If I’d already come and gone, and one of the others got to go last, he’d be giving you a version of the same pitch. Ma’am, you want to be fair to yourself, and to do right by the man who gathered all these philatelic treasures together in the first place. Which is to say you want the highest price. And that’s exactly what you’ll get if you open those envelopes.”

It was getting on for noon when they opened the envelopes. By ten minutes to four, the entire cargo compartment of the oversize SUV was filled to capacity, with one additional carton, its seat belt securely fastened, riding shotgun. There was another box on the floor containing a two-quart Thermos bottle and half a dozen sandwiches in individual self-sealing plastic bags.

“I’ll drive straight through,” Pierce Naylor said. “It’s around nine hundred miles to St. Louis, all of it on interstates, and with the sandwiches and coffee I’ll never have to leave the vehicle. Very thoughtful of you, Mrs. Soderling. I’ll have FedEx get your Thermos back in good shape.”

“It’s a spare, Mr. Naylor, and the cap’s chipped. Don’t bother returning it.”

“You’re sure? Because it wouldn’t be any trouble. Well, then. Mr. Edwards, Mrs. Soderling. A pleasure doing business with you.”

They stood in silence and watched him drive off. He’d flown from St. Louis to Denver, where he’d reserved the Navigator, making sure he got the largest SUV any of the rental outlets had on offer. If he’d missed out on the collection, he’d have driven back to Denver and flown home. But he’d been successful, so he’d drive home, pay the car rental people a drop charge, waste his return air ticket, and his employers would count it all money well spent.

“It was remarkable how smoothly it went. He called the firm he works for, and someone there called a bank and arranged a wire transfer, and in no time at all Mrs. Soderling’s bank confirmed that the money was in her account.”

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