Hit Me Page 41

“I wish,” Mark said. “No, I was just wondering.”


He’d been at his desk, working on his own stamp collection, when the phone rang. If Julia had been home he’d have left it for her to answer, but she was at the playground with Jenny, letting her polish her social skills even as she refined her sandbox technique. He debated letting the machine answer it, then picked it up in the middle of the third ring.

“Lo siento mucho,” said a familiar voice in an unconvincing accent. “Quiero hablar a Pablo, pero yo tengo el número wrongo.”


His caller hung up before he could respond.

“I was beginning to wonder,” Dot said. “All you said was ‘Hello,’ and it sounded like you, but what if I really did dial a wrong number? An hour went by and nothing happened. I figured I’d give you another ten minutes, and here you are. What happened? You couldn’t find the phone?”

“I had to recharge it.”

“Now why the hell didn’t that occur to me? It should have, because I had to charge my own Pablo phone, which I haven’t used since you got back from Denver and said no más. That’s Spanish, it means—”

“I know what it means. It’s about as hard to translate as el número wrongo.”

“I looked it up,” she said, “and what I should have said is el número equivocado. But I figured you’d know what I meant. Look, I know you’re not doing this anymore.”


“And I think that’s fine. Nobody should stay too long at the fair, and maybe the stamp business will work out for you, and if it doesn’t, well, sooner or later construction will be good again, won’t it?”


“While I, on the other hand, can’t claim a huge interest in either stamps or houses. So I get my hair done and I have lunch with my girlfriends, and when a job comes in I find somebody to do it. And then this one came in, and I decided to call you, and all you have to do is tell me to forget it.”

“And you’ll find somebody else.”

“Nope. I’ll forget it.”

Well, she had his interest. “Why’s that?”

“A child.”

“Fourteen years old, and either I saw an old photograph or he looks young for his years.”

“Before all this,” he said, “that was a line I always drew. I didn’t care who the targets were, and the less I knew about them, the better. But no kids.”

“It rarely came up,” she said. “And when it did, I turned the job down. I didn’t always tell you. I just turned it down and that was that.”

“So why is this different? Is this kid some kind of bad seed out of a horror movie?”

“I think he’s a perfectly nice little boy.”

“Then I don’t get it.”

“Pablo,” she said, “the phone rang, and the assignment came, and I drove to Flagstaff to pick up the first payment and the instructions. And there’s this photo straight out of Leave It to Beaver, and a name and address, and so on. And I thought, well, it’s good I didn’t have the money in my hand for very long, because that makes it a little easier to send it back.”

“But you didn’t.”

“I was about to,” she said, “but then I asked myself a question. You know what the question was?”


“‘Now what happens?’”


“Right. I don’t know why that never occurred to me in the past, when somebody wanted us to hit a kid and I told them thanks but no thanks. But it dawned on me this time that what I was really saying was you’ll have to find somebody else, and of course that’s exactly what would happen. They’d find somebody else, and the kid would still be dead, even if we didn’t wind up with blood on our hands.”

“What I always used to tell myself,” he said, “was that any job I drew, the guy was dead whether I did it or not. Because somebody wanted him dead badly enough to pay the money, and if I didn’t do it somebody else would.”

“All of which is true.”

“But just because we wouldn’t do a kid, that doesn’t mean somebody else wouldn’t take the job.”

“Your average sociopath,” she said, “would probably prefer a kid, the same way a mugger would prefer a frail old lady.”

“Safer and simpler.”

“So let me ask you this, Pablo. What do you figure became of the handful of kids I thought I was saving?”

“Jesus. Not much fun to think about that.”

“Not much fun at all. Here’s the thing, though. If the voice on the phone had let me know he was talking about a kid, my thinking never would have gotten that far. I’d have turned the job down, and I’d have felt good about it, as if I’d just sent in a big donation to Father Flanagan’s Boys Town. Let’s hear it for Wilma-Known-as-Dot, who just saved a child’s life. And then I’d have gone off to get my hair done.”

“How often do you do that?”

“Once a week, whether it needs it or not. But there I was, looking at a picture of the kid, and I know I don’t want any part of this one, but if I turn down the job it’s the same as killing him myself.”

“Not exactly.”

“He’s just as dead.”

“Well, I guess that’s true.”

“And if I did it myself at least I’d make it as painless as I could. But I wouldn’t do it at all, and neither would you, Pablo, and the kind of person who would, well, maybe he’s the type who enjoys it. There are people like that in the world, you know.”

“Lots of them.”

“Even in our line of work, you get the occasional nut job.”

He nodded. “By and large,” he said, “they don’t last long.”

“But they get a lot done in their brief careers, don’t they? That type of person enjoys his work, takes his time, gets all he can out of it. That’s disgusting enough with any target, but when it’s a kid—”

He got the point. He said, “What was it that general said? Or maybe it was somebody in the Defense Department. ‘We had to destroy the village in order to save it.’”

“Rings a muted bell. But we don’t have to kill the kid in order to save him. All we have to do is take the job.”

“And not carry it out.”

“Have to be a little more proactive than that, don’t you think?”

“Carry it out,” he said, “but not on the kid.”

“Right. On the person who ordered the hit.”

“Do we know who that is?”


“Do we know how to find out?”

“Same answer. We don’t.”

“Can’t you get somebody else?”

“The others,” she said, “are just voices on the phone, as far as I’m concerned, and that’s all I am to them. If I even broached the subject they’d figure I was going soft in the head. ‘Somebody wants a kid hit? So I’ll hit him, ma’am. What’s the problem?’”

“They call you ma’am?”

She sighed. “What you probably ought to do,” she said, “is turn me down. Then you can go play with your stamps and I can send the money back and wash my hands of the whole thing. Isn’t that what whatsisname did?”


“In the Bible. The guy who washed his hands. He was famous for it. Never mind. Did I mention where the boy lives? Well, it’s Buffalo. I don’t even know if you’ve been there.”

“Not in years. I can’t remember a thing about it, except for Niagara Falls.”

“You went to Niagara Falls?”

“No,” he said. “But I could have.”


You know,” Keller said, “I own a couple of the unissued overprints, though I couldn’t tell you offhand if I’ve got the five-pfennig brown or the twenty-pfennig green. Those were the ones you mentioned, weren’t they?”

The boy nodded. “Some of the issued stamps come in shades, and sometimes there’s a big price difference. A dollar for the common shade and twenty or thirty dollars for the variety. And in both sets, for the two-and-a-half-mark lilac rose, the Scott listing just says ‘shades.’ I guess that means that the stamp comes in brown lilac and magenta as well, like the German stamp, and that they’re all equally common and low-priced.”

Keller said that struck him as a reasonable guess. “You know a lot about Allenstein,” he said.

“Not that much. I know it was founded by the Teutonic Knights, which is kind of interesting, but I’m not too clear on who they were.”

“I never even heard of them. Was that in Scott?”

“Wikipedia. I actually own one of the minor varieties, Scott 11a, the one-and-a-quarter-mark in blue-green. It’s nine dollars, which is no fortune, but it’s scarcer than the common green.”

“It sounds as though you specialize in Allenstein.”

“More like the whole German area,” the boy said, and talked about the albums that housed his collection, and how they’d been a present—“Several presents, really”—from his grandmother. “I’m Mark, by the way, but I guess you know that, because Mr. Hasselbend said my name when he called on me. Not that you’d necessarily remember that.”

Keller remembered, and hadn’t needed to hear Hasselbend, either. “I’m Nick Edwards,” he said.

“And what do you collect, Mr. Edwards?”

“You can call me Nick,” Keller said, and told him what he collected, and about his Martinique specialty.

“That’s one you’ll never complete,” Mark said. “There are a couple of super-expensive rarities, aren’t there? Or am I thinking of Guadeloupe?”

“Either one,” Keller said. “There’s a Guadeloupe postage-due that’s unknown in mint condition, and extremely rare used. And with Martinique you’ve got Scott 11 and 17, both with five-figure price tags, and that’s if you can find them.”

Keller could find them. All he had to do was look in his album. He’d bought both at the same auction, after a nice windfall. But that didn’t strike him as something he needed to share with Mark.

They chatted, and then Mark excused himself to trade duplicates with a motherly woman who could have been the sister of the Google fan on the desk downstairs. Each had brought a small stock book and a pair of stamp tongs, and they sat side by side at a table and haggled amiably, like Levantine merchants.

“You can still go,” Dot said. “Last I heard, the Falls was still up and running. If you fly up to Buffalo on Sunday, you could fit in a day at the Falls.”

“I think I’ll stay home.”

“I figured you’d say that. And I can’t say I blame you.”

“Why would anyone want to kill a kid? To go and pay money to have him killed?”

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