Hit List

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Did Roger even know the same man had been his target both times, in Louisville and in Boston? For that matter, did Roger have a clue he’d killed the wrong person on both occasions?

If so, Keller could see how Roger might begin to take the whole thing personally, like Wile E. Coyote in a Roadrunner cartoon.

Keller knew it was nothing personal. How could it be, when you didn’t know the person you were killing? Still, he seemed to be taking it personally himself, at those times when Roger took up space in his thoughts.

Which wasn’t that often. The days went by, and he didn’t see anything when he looked over his shoulder, and he forgot about Roger. And every once in a while Dot sent him out on a job, at which time he did do a certain amount of looking over his shoulder, a certain amount of thinking about Roger. But then he came back from the job without having done anything, to Roger or to anyone else, and the client paid him, and that was that.

And then he’d said he was out of town, and Maggie said she knew, and he’d been ready to grab her and snap her neck. Just like that.

He’d called up, as requested, to replace his home number on her Caller ID with the number of the pay phone. But was that how Caller ID worked? Did it keep track of just one number at a time? He didn’t have it on his phone, he couldn’t imagine why he’d want it, so he wasn’t too clear on how it worked. And, even if it was the way she’d said it was, how did he know she hadn’t picked up the phone the minute he was out the door? She could have copied the number off the screen before he called back to erase it.

She was, let’s face it, more than a little strange. That had been part of her initial appeal, that offbeat downtown weirdness, though he had to say it had grown less appealing with time. Still, it made it impossible to guess what the woman would do.

If she had the number, she could get the address. She’d mentioned the reverse directory herself, so she knew about it, knew how to get an address to go with a phone number. If she knew all that, and of course she already knew his name, she’d known that from the beginning…

But that didn’t mean she knew what he did for a living. Suppose she’d picked up on his reaction, suppose she’d half-sensed that he’d been ready to reach for her and put her down. The fact remained that he hadn’t done anything, hadn’t even acted angry, let alone homicidal. Once he was out the door, once it was clear that she was safe, she’d talk herself out of any alarm she might have felt.

Wouldn’t she?

Back home, he worked on his stamp collection for a few minutes, then put everything away and turned on the TV. He worked his way through the channels two or three times, triggering the remote until his hand was tired, then thumbing the power button and darkening the set. And sat there in what little light came in from the window, looking at the remote in his hand. Looking at his thumb.

Maggie knew he had a murderer’s thumb. She’d pointed it out, called it to his attention.

Maybe she’d think about that and put it together with whatever she’d picked up when he’d been ready to reach for her. And maybe she’d factor in the way he was retired at an early age, but went out of town occasionally on special jobs for unspecified corporate employers. And maybe there’d be a hired killer in the headlines, or in some movie she saw, or some TV program. And maybe her eyes would widen, and she’d make a connection, and realize just who he was and what he was.

And then?

Eighteen

The airport in Orange County was named after John Wayne. Keller got off the plane with a tune running through his head, and he was halfway to the baggage claim before he worked out what it was. The theme from The High and the Mighty.

Funny how the mind did things like that.

There were half a dozen men standing alongside the baggage claim, some in chauffeur’s livery, all of them holding hand-lettered signs. Keller walked past them without a glance. No one was meeting him-that was policy, now that the mysterious Roger was out there somewhere. Anyway, no one would be expecting him to fly to Orange County, because his assignment was all the way down in La Jolla. La Jolla was a suburb of San Diego, and San Diego had a perfectly good airport of its own, larger and busier than Orange County ’s, and not named after anyone.

“Unless you count St. James,” Dot had said. When he looked blank, she told him that San Diego was Spanish for St. James. “Or Santiago,” she said. “ San Diego, Santiago. Same guy.”

“Then why do they have two names for him?”

“Maybe one’s the equivalent of James,” she said, “and the other’s more like Jimmy. What’s the difference? You’re not flying there.”

Instead he’d flown to Orange County, just in case Roger might be lurking in San Diego. He didn’t really think there was much likelihood of this. They hadn’t heard a peep out of Roger since he’d killed a man in Boston, a man who’d stolen Keller’s green trench coat and paid dearly for his crime. That was when he and Dot had figured out who Roger was and what he was trying to do.

At the time, Keller had found the whole business extremely upsetting. The idea that there was someone out there, hell-bent on being the impersonal instrument of his death, had him constantly looking over his shoulder. He’d never had to do that before, and he didn’t much like it.

But you got used to it. Keller supposed it was a little like having a heart condition. You worried about it at first, and then you stopped worrying. You took sensible precautions, you didn’t take the stairs two at a time, you paid a kid to shovel out your driveway in the winter, but you didn’t think about it all the time. You got used to it.

And he had gotten used to Roger. There was a man out there, a man who didn’t know his name and might or might not recognize him by sight, a man who shared Keller’s profession and wanted to thin the ranks of the competition. You quit letting clients meet you at the airport, you covered your tracks, but you didn’t have to hide under the bed. You went about your business.

Flying into a less convenient airport came under the heading of sensible precautions. Keller saw it as a bonus that the airport was named for John Wayne. Approaching the Avis counter, he felt a few inches taller, a little broader in the shoulders.

The clerk-Keller wanted to call him Pilgrim, but suppressed the urge-checked the license and credit card Keller showed him and was halfway through the paperwork when something pulled him up short. Keller asked him if something was wrong.

“Your reservation,” the man said. “It seems it’s been canceled.”

“Must be a mistake.”

“I can reinstate it, no problem. I mean, we have cars available, and you’re here.”

“Right.”

“So I’ll just… oh, there’s a note here. You’re supposed to call your office.”

“My office.”

“That’s what it says. Shall I go ahead with this?”

Keller told him to wait. From a pay phone, he called his own apartment in New York. While it rang he had the eerie feeling that the call would be answered, and that the voice he heard would be his own, talking to him. He shook his head, amused at the workings of his own mind, and then he did in fact hear his own voice, inviting him to leave a message. It was his answering machine, of course, but it took him a split second to realize as much, and he almost dropped the phone.

There were no messages.

He broke the connection and called Dot in White Plains, and she picked up halfway through the first ring. “Good,” she said. “It worked. I thought of having you paged. ‘Mr. Keller, Mr. John Keller, please pick up the white courtesy phone.’ But do we really want your name booming out over a loudspeaker?”

“I wouldn’t think so.”

“And would you even hear it? He’ll be through the airport like a shot, I thought. He won’t have to stop at the baggage claim, and as soon as he picks up his rental car he’s out of there. Bingo, I thought.”

“So you called Avis.”

“I called everybody. I remembered the name on that license and credit card of yours, but suppose you were using something else? Anyway, Avis had your reservation, and they said they’d see that you got the message, and they were as good as their word. So it worked.”

“Not entirely,” he said. “While they were at it, they canceled my reservation.”

“I canceled your reservation, Keller. You don’t need a car because you’re not going anywhere, aside from the next plane back to New York.”

“Oh?”

“Three hours ago, while you were over what? Illinois? Iowa?”

“Whatever.”

“While you were experiencing slight turbulence at thirty-five thousand feet,” she said, “a couple of uniforms were making vain efforts to revive Heck Palmieri, who had put his belt around his neck, closed the closet door around the free end of the belt, and kicked over the chair he was standing on. Guess what happened to him?”

“He died?”

“For our sins,” Dot said, “or for his own, more likely. Either way, it leaves you with nothing to do out there. Other hand, who says you have to make a U-turn? I’ll bet you can find somebody to rent you a car.”

“They were all set to reinstate the reservation.”

“Well, reinstate it, if you want. Have some lunch, see the sights. You’re where, Orange County? Go look at some Republicans.”

“Well,” Keller said. “I guess I’ll come home.”

“It’s a good way to miss jet lag,” Keller said, “because I was back where I started before it could draw a bead on me.”

“How were your flights?”

“All right, I guess. Pointless, but otherwise all right.”

They were on the open front porch of the big house on Taunton Place, sitting in lawn chairs with a pitcher of iced tea on the table between them. It was a warm day, warmer than it had been in Southern California. Of course he’d never really felt the temperature there, because he’d never stepped outside of the air-conditioned airport.

“Not entirely pointless,” Dot said. “They paid half in advance, and we get to keep that.”

“I should hope so.”

“They called here,” she said, “to call it off, but of course your flight to California was already in the air by then. They said something about a refund, and I said something about they should live so long.”

“A refund!”

“They were just trying it on, Keller. They backed down right away.”

“They should pay the whole thing,” he said.

“How do you figure that?”

“Well, the guy’s dead, isn’t he?”

“By his own hand, Keller. His own belt, anyway. What did you have to do with it?”

“What did I have to do with Klinger? Or Petrosian?”

“May they rest in peace,” Dot said, “but they’re our little secret, remember? Far as the clients were concerned, you showed them the door, sent them on their way. With Palmieri, you were up in the air when he decided to check out the tensile strength of a one-inch strip of split cowhide. Don’t look at me like that, Keller. I don’t really know what kind of belt he used. The point is you were nowhere around, so how are they going to figure it was your doing?”

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