Hit Me Page 6

“Saw you yesterday morning,” Michael said. “If I remember correctly, you were in the room when that big block got away from me.”

“Quite a price it brought.”

“Way more than my maximum, so I wisely sat back and let it go. And guess what?”

“You’ve been kicking yourself ever since.”

“Around the block and back again. Oh, I know I was right to let it go, but when am I gonna get a shot at a piece like that again? Not until they auction off the collection of the sonofabitch who bought it, and by then it’ll probably go for three times what it brought yesterday. Nick, I’ve bought some things I shouldn’t have over the years, and I’ve paid too much for some of them, but that sort of thing never bothers me for more than a minute or two. It’s the ones that get away that drive you crazy.”

Obock J1, Keller thought.

He worked on his breakfast while Michael told him about the afternoon session, where he’d made up for the loss of the block by picking up all the covers he’d had his eye on, most of them at good prices. “But I wanted that block,” he told Keller, “and I still want it. How about yourself? What are you looking to buy today?”

Keller had a seat in the auction room and was studying his catalog when he realized he’d forgotten to call Dot. He hadn’t called Julia, either, to wish her a good morning. Should he duck out and make the calls? He thought about it, and then they started the sale and called the first lot, and he decided to stay where he was.

By the time they got to France and French Colonies, Keller had bid on ten lots and acquired six of them, letting the others go when the bidding climbed out of his range. As Michael had observed, a general collector always has plenty of things to buy, and Keller spent a few dollars and added a few stamps to his collection, issues from Albania and the Dominican Republic and Eastern Rumelia and Ecuador, none of them bringing more than a few hundred dollars. Then they got to the French section, where Keller’s collection was strongest and where the lots he needed were higher in price, and harder to find. He sat calmly in his chair, but he felt anticipation and excitement coursing through him like an electric current.

The Obock stamp was valued at $7500 in Keller’s Scott catalog, while his Yvert et Tellier specialized catalog of France and its colonies listed the stamp at €12,000, or almost double the price in Scott.

Both Scott and Y&T mentioned the reprint, Scott pegging it at $200, Y&T at €350. Keller couldn’t remember what he’d paid, but thought it was around $150. Now he’d have the chance to bid on the original, and had a feeling it was going to bring a high price.

Back in New Orleans, before Dot’s phone call, Keller had already had his eye on the stamp. At the time he’d decided the stamp was worth $10,000 to him, but wasn’t sure he could rationalize spending that much money. Now, with his business on Caruth Boulevard successfully concluded, the money was there to be spent. He picked up a couple of lots—an early stamp from Diego-Suárez, an inverted overprint from Martinique—and when Obock J1 came up, he was ready.

Moments later, the stamp was his.

There were other lots that he’d marked in his catalog, but he was no longer interested in bidding on them. He felt as though he’d just fought a prizefight, or run a marathon, and all he’d done was raise a forefinger and keep it raised until he was the only bidder left.

The hammer price was $16,500, and he’d have to pay a 15 percent bidder’s premium on top of that, plus whatever sales tax the state of Texas felt it deserved. Close to $20,000 for a homely little square of paper, but it was his to have and to hold, his to protect in a black-backed plastic mount, his to place in his album alongside the $200 reprint to which it looked essentially identical.

In the elevator he felt a twinge of buyer’s remorse, but by the time he was in his room it had dissipated, leaving him with a warm glow of accomplishment. He’d had to hang in there, had to keep his finger in the air while other bidders in the room gave up and dropped out, then had to hold on until the phone bidder finally gave up and let go. It was a rare stamp, and other people wanted it, but the whole point of an auction was to see who wanted something the most, and this time around it was Keller.

He called Julia from his room. “I got the stamp I wanted, and it’s a beauty. But I had to spend more than I expected, so I’m going to skip the afternoon session and hit the road early. I’ll break the trip somewhere, and I should be home some time tomorrow afternoon.”

She told him the latest cute thing Jenny had said, and a little gossip about the young couple who’d moved into the old Beaulieu house, and when the conversation ended he switched phones and called Dot, and this time she answered.

“I tried you yesterday,” he said, “and then I was going to call first thing this morning but it slipped my mind, and I was all caught up in the drama of a stamp auction.”

“With all the pulse-pounding excitement thereof.”

“What I wanted to tell you,” he said, “is it’s all taken care of, and it couldn’t have gone better.”

“Is that so.”

“Double bonus,” he said.


They were using a pair of untraceable phones, but even so he felt it best to be cryptic. “The primary is down,” he said, “and the secondary objective is fully implicated.”

“Do tell.”

He frowned. “Is something wrong?”

“From a dollars-and-cents standpoint,” she said, “I’d have to say there is. There’s not going to be a bonus, let alone a double bonus.”


“As a matter of fact, we can forget about the second half of the basic fee. You know, the portion due upon completion of the assignment?”

“But the assignment was completed.”

“I’ll say.”

“Dot, what’s the matter?”

“You got up this morning, had a cup of coffee—right so far?”

“I had breakfast,” he said, mystified. “And then I went to the auction room.”

“Read the paper while you ate your breakfast?”

“No. I joined this fellow and we got to talking.”

“About stamps, I’ll bet. Good breakfast?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, but—”

“And then you went to the auction room.”


“And bought some stamps, I suppose.”

“Well, yes. But—”

“The Dallas morning newspaper,” she said, “is called the Dallas Morning News, and don’t ask me how they came up with a name like that. You can’t beat Texans for imagination. Go buy the paper, Keller. You’ll find what you’re looking for right there on the front page.”


He picked up the lots he’d won, paid for them, and packed them along with his other belongings in his small suitcase. He checked out of the Lombardy and drove off with his suitcase next to him on the front seat. Traffic was light, and he didn’t have any trouble finding his way to the interstate. He headed for New Orleans, and found a country music station, but turned it off after half an hour.

He broke the trip at the same Red Roof Inn, used the same credit card. In his room he wondered if that was a good idea. But the trip was a matter of record, and one he had never attempted to conceal. Portions of it, of course, were off the record—the car rental, the visit to Caruth Boulevard—but he had no reason to hide the fact that he’d been to Dallas, and had the stamps to prove it.

He ate next door at a Bob’s Big Boy, and it seemed to him that half the men in the room had mustaches. Like his philatelic friend Michael, and like the man whose fingers he’d curled around the hilt of Portia Walmsley’s kitchen knife.

They’d found him like that, Keller had learned on page one of the Dallas Morning News. Still in a drunken stupor, still holding the knife, and still sprawled out next to the dead body of a woman.

Reading the paper, Keller had learned why the sonofabitch looked familiar. Keller had seen him before, and not in the auction room, or around the Lombardy. He hadn’t seen the man himself, not really. He’d seen the guy’s picture—online, in some of the photos that popped up when he asked Google Images for a peek at Portia. And it was entirely natural that he be photographed at her side. After all, he was her husband.

Charles Walmsley. The client.

A reconciliation, Dot had explained. Charles Walmsley had gone over to his wife’s house, perhaps in the hope of getting one last look at her before he got to see her in her coffin. And evidently the old magic was still there, and, well, one thing led to another. And somewhere along the way he remembered that he’d better call off the hit.

So he made a phone call and figured that was that. A single phone call had put the operation in motion, so wouldn’t a second phone call nip it in the bud?

Absolutely. But the person Walmsley called had to make a call of his own, and the person he called had to call Dot, and the new directive took its time working its way through the system. By the time Dot got the word, it was already too late.

Back home, Keller held his daughter high in the air. “Tummy!” she demanded, and he put his lips to her stomach and blew, making an indelicate sound. Jenny laughed with delight and insisted he do it again.

It was good to be home.

Later that evening, Keller went upstairs and settled in with his stamps. After he’d mounted Obock J1, he called Julia in and showed it to her, and she admired it extravagantly.

“It’s like when somebody shows you their new baby,” Keller said. “You have to say it’s beautiful, because what else are you going to say?”

“All babies are beautiful.”

“And all stamps, I suppose. That’s the original on the right and the reprint next to it. They look the same, don’t they?”

“I bet their mother could tell the difference,” she said.

Two days later, Keller bought a new phone and called Dot. “Take down this number,” he said, and read it off to her. She read it back and asked what was wrong with the old number. “It’s no good anymore,” he said, “because I smashed the phone and threw the pieces down a storm drain.”

“I smashed a pay phone once,” she said, “when it flat-out refused to give me my dime back. What did this phone do to piss you off?”

“I figured it would be safer to get a new phone.”

“And I figure you’re probably right. You okay, Keller? Last time we talked you were a little shaky.”

“I’m all right.”

“Because you didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Our client fell in love with his wife all over again,” he said, “and I killed her and framed him for it. If I’d known what was going on, you can bet I’d have handled it differently.”

“Keller, if you’d known, you wouldn’t have handled it at all. You’d have bought some stamps and come home.”

“Well, that’s true,” he allowed. “Obviously. But I still wish I hadn’t made the phone call.”

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