Hit Me Page 4

“INS,” he said.

Her face remained expressionless, but eloquently so.

“Green card,” he said.

“No hablo inglés.”

“Carta verde,” Keller said, straining his command of the language to the limit. “¿Tienes un carta verde?”

Una, he thought. Not un, for God’s sake. Una. An INS man would know that, right? Jesus, you couldn’t live in New York without knowing that much, let alone Texas, and—

Un, una, what difference could it possibly make? Her shoulders slumped, and she managed somehow to become even smaller. Keller felt horrible.

“I will be back,” he said. “I’ll go away now to have my lunch, and when I come back you can show me your green card. Your carta verde, comprenez-vous?”

Comprenez-vous? That was French, for God’s sake, yet another language he was unable to speak. But it was clear that she comprenezed just fine.

“You come back?”

“In an hour,” he said, and turned away, unable to bear the sight of her expressionless face.

He drove to the strip mall, parking this time near the Walgreens, and tossed the clipboard into a trash bin alongside the entrance. He wasn’t hungry and he couldn’t think of anything to buy, so he returned to his car and sat behind the wheel. Nothing to read, nothing to do, really, but let time pass. He fiddled with the radio, but couldn’t figure out how to get it to play without running the engine. There’d be a way to do it, there always was, but every car maker felt compelled to work out its own way of doing things, and when you rented cars you could never figure out how to adjust the seats or play the radio or work the air-conditioning or dim the lights, and when you went to signal a left turn you generally wound up switching on the windshield wipers. The steering was always more or less the same, and so were the brakes, and it was a good thing or everybody would crash into everybody else.

They’d have newspapers in the drugstore. Magazines, maybe even paperback books.

No, the hell with it.

He gave her an hour and a half, then returned to the Walmsley house and parked once again in the driveway. He walked up to the door and rang the bell, and wondered if he might have been a shade precipitous in ditching the clipboard, because what if she opened the door with Portia Walmsley on her left and some slick immigration lawyer on her right? Hang on, he’d say. Be right back, soon as I get my clipboard—

No one came to the door. He rang the bell again, and listened carefully, and heard no footsteps. The car, the rented Subaru, had now become a problem, and he wished he’d left it at the strip mall and approached on foot. But that was a long way to walk in a neighborhood where everybody drove.

He couldn’t leave the thing in the driveway. There was probably room for it in the three-car garage, since the estranged husband wouldn’t have left on foot, but Portia Walmsley would almost certainly notice his car when she parked her own beside it, and—

He backed out of the driveway, drove fifty yards down the street, parked, and walked back. Rang the bell, listened for footsteps, knocked, listened again. He tried the doorknob, because you never know, but it was locked.

No problem.


Keller had never been a thief, let alone a burglar. In his youth he’d been one of several young men who’d hung around the Old Man’s place in Yonkers. The Old Man was Giuseppe Ragone, dear to the hearts of tabloid journalists, who wrote about him as Joey Rags. Keller had never called him that, or anything like it. In direct conversation, if he called the man anything it was Sir. To others, he’d refer to him as Mr. R. In his own mind, though, his boss was the Old Man.

And Keller liked hanging around. The Old Man would give him errands to run, packages to pick up and deliver, messages to pass along. Eventually he sent Keller along when disciplinary actions were called for, and something he saw led him to devise assignments that, in retrospect, Keller was able to recognize as little tests. Keller, unaware he was being tested, passed with flying colors. What the Old Man managed to establish was that Keller didn’t flinch when called upon to pull the trigger. The Old Man had suspected as much, that was why he’d devised the tests, but it was all news to Keller.

So Keller went from being an errand boy to taking people out, and at first the people he took out were men who had somehow managed to get on the Old Man’s hit list, and then the Old Man realized what a fine, dependable asset he had, and began renting Keller out to interested parties. Not many people knew Keller’s name, the Old Man saw to that, but an increasing number of people knew he was out there somewhere, at the beck and call of Joey Rags, and that he did good work. So from that point on that was the only kind of work he was called upon to perform. There were no more packages or messages to deliver, no more errands to run.

A more conventional apprenticeship would have seen Keller grow into a jack-of-all-criminal-trades, with a working knowledge of various felonious enterprises. But Keller, forced to improvise, had picked up what he needed to know. Without ever becoming a disciplined student of the martial arts, he’d read books and rented videos, taken the odd class here and there, and was as proficient as he had to be with the usual run of weapons, and with his bare hands. Similarly, he’d become reasonably good at breaking and entering, and it didn’t take him long to get into the Walmsley house.

It was the sort of house that would have a burglar alarm installed, and there was a decal to that effect, along with metallic tape on the ground-floor windows. But the alarm had not been engaged when the maid opened the door to him, and he didn’t believe for a moment she’d have taken the time to set it before fleeing a house she’d never be likely to see again. If the Walmsleys had ever taken the trouble to teach her how to set it in the first place.

No alarm, then. The front door was locked, probably because it locked of its own accord when you pulled it shut. Keller could have forced it but didn’t, nor did he force the door leading to the garage. He went around to the rear of the house, took one of the windows off its track, and let himself in.

The maid wouldn’t be coming back. The house was a large one, and Keller went through it room by room, and it was easy to tell the maid’s room, because it was the smallest room in the house, tucked in under the back stairs and alongside the kitchen. There was a wooden crucifix hanging from a nail on one wall, and there was a week-old copy of El Diario, and that was pretty much all there was aside from the bed and dresser. She’d thrown everything else in a suitcase and now she was gone, and she wouldn’t be coming back.

The crucifix, he decided, had been a parting gift from her mother in El Salvador. That was the name of the country, while the capital city was San Salvador, but she probably came from somewhere else. Cutuco, he decided. Puerto Cutuco was the only other city he knew in El Salvador, and he knew it because one of the stamps of the 1935 series pictured the wharf at Cutuco. Another stamp in the same series showed a volcano, and he knew its name, but couldn’t remember it.

As if it mattered. Her mother in Cutuco had given her the crucifix, he continued thinking, telling her to keep it with her forever and it would always protect her, and she’d dutifully mounted it on the wall, and in her haste she’d forgotten it. Terrified of the faceless Immigration and Naturalization Service (except it wasn’t so faceless now, it had Keller’s face on it), she’d abandoned the one thing she owned that tied her to her home and family. She wouldn’t come back for it, she didn’t dare, but its loss would always bother her, and—

Jesus, get over it, he told himself. She could let go of the crucifix a lot easier than he could relinquish the fantasy he was spinning, complete with a hometown from a stamp in his collection.

It bothered him, though. That he’d scared her the way he did. Still, what else was he supposed to do? He couldn’t snap her neck just because she was in the way. She was tiny, she’d have to stand on a box to be five feet tall. It would be like killing a little kid, and that was something Keller had never done. Once or twice someone had offered a contract on a child, and he and Dot had been entirely in accord on the subject. You had to draw a line, and that was where you had to draw it.

But that was a matter of age, not size. The woman—and he found himself wishing he knew her name, now that he’d played such a role in her life—was certainly over twenty-one. Old enough to vote, old enough to drink…and old enough to be killed? Was he being politically incorrect by giving her a pass on the basis of her height? Was he being…well, he wasn’t sure the word existed, but was he being a sizeist? A heightist? Was he altitudinally prejudiced?

What he was being, he told himself, was severely neurotic, and that was the occasional consequence of breaking into an empty house with nothing to do but wait for someone to appear. He’d done this sort of thing before, but that was in an earlier life. Now he had a wife and a daughter, now he lived in a big old house in New Orleans and had a business repairing and renovating other people’s houses, and the new life suited him, and what was he doing here, anyway?

He looked at his watch, and every ten minutes or so he looked at it again.

Keller had read somewhere that all of man’s difficulties stemmed from his inability to sit alone in a room. The line stayed with him, and a while ago he’d Googled his way to its source. Someone named Pascal had made the observation, Blaise Pascal, and it turned out he’d said a lot of other interesting things as well, but all but the first one had slipped Keller’s mind. He thought of it now as he forced himself to sit alone in the maid’s room, waiting for Portia Walmsley to come home.

And pictured the woman. When he was living in New York, he’d have taken the train to White Plains, where Dot would have given him the woman’s photograph, which someone would have sent to her by FedEx, in the same package with the first installment of his fee. Instead, he’d booted up his computer, clicked on Google Images, typed in “Portia Walmsley,” and clicked again, whereupon Google served up a banquet of pictures of the oh-so-social Mrs. Walmsley, sometimes alone, sometimes with others, but all of them showing a big-haired full-figured blonde with what Keller had once heard called a Pepsodent smile. Or was it an Ipana smile? Keller couldn’t remember, and decided he didn’t care.

Sitting alone in a room, with only one’s own mind and an abandoned crucifix for company, wasn’t the most fun Keller had ever had in his life. There was nothing in the room he could read, and nothing to look at but suffering Jesus, and that was the last place Keller wanted to aim his eyes.

Which, no matter where he pointed them, he was finding it increasingly difficult to keep open. They kept closing of their own accord. He kicked off his shoes and stretched out on the bed, just for comfort, not because he intended to sleep, and—

And the next thing he knew he was in an auction room, with one lot after another hammered down before he could get his hand in the air to bid. And a man and a woman were sitting on either side of him, talking furiously in a language he couldn’t understand, and making it impossible for him to focus on the auction. And—

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