Hit List

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“Oh.”

“Now that was a quick one. Out and back the same day. Unfortunately…”

“Does this client know he can’t change his mind?”

“As a matter of fact, he does. I made sure of it. But that’s not the only thing that’s wrong with hurrying. If you go to Baltimore knowing you’ve got less than forty-eight hours to get the job done…”

Keller got the point. It wasn’t great when you could hear the clock ticking.

“I wouldn’t want to cut corners,” he said, “but say I go down there tonight and spend the weekend looking things over. If I get the opportunity to close the sale, I take it. If not I’m on the train back Sunday night.”

“And then I tell the client to go roll his hoop?”

“No, what you tell the client is I’m on the case and the job is as good as done. Jury duty isn’t a lifetime commitment. How long can it take?”

“That’s what the lady in L.A. said, when they picked her for the O. J. jury.”

“I’ll go back to Baltimore next weekend,” he said, “and the weekend after that, if I have to, and by then I’ll be done doing my civic duty. Did the client put a time limit on it?”

“No. He wouldn’t want her to die of old age, but there’s no clause in the contract saying time is of the essence.”

“So at the most we’re looking at two, three weeks, and if there’s any question you tell them I’m in Baltimore, trying to make sure I do the job right.”

“And you could always catch a break along the way.”

“A break?”

“The famous Keller luck. Macnamara could stroke out or get run over by a cable car.”

“In Baltimore?”

“Whatever. Oh, and this doesn’t have to be natural causes, by the way, and in fact it’s better if it’s not. She’s supposed to be an object lesson.”

“An example to others.”

“Something like that.”

He nodded. “I won’t hurry this one,” he said, “but I hope I get it done this weekend.”

“I thought you liked to take your time.”

“Sometimes,” he said. “Not always.”

The bar, called Counterpoint, was on Fleet Street, and pretty much in the heart of Fells Point. Keller got a very strange feeling walking into it. On the one hand he felt oddly at home, as if he’d spent a lot of happy hours within its walls. At the same time, he sensed that it was not a safe place for him to be.

It certainly looked safe enough. The crowd ran to twenty or thirty people, more men than women. They were mostly white, mostly in their thirties or forties. Dress was casual, mood relaxed. Keller had been in bars where you knew right away that half the customers had criminal records, that people were doing coke in the rest rooms, that before the night was over someone was going to break a bottle over someone else’s head. And this simply wasn’t that kind of place, or that sort of crowd. No crooks, no cops. Just ordinary folks.

And then he got it. Cops. He kept feeling as though the place ought to be full of cops, cops drinking away the tension of the job, other cops behind the bar, drawing beers, mixing drinks. It was that damned program, he realized. The cops on the program had opened a bar together, it was supposed to provide comic relief or something, and he felt as though he’d just walked into it.

Was this the very place? It wouldn’t be staffed with cops in real life, obviously, but it could be where the TV crew filmed those scenes. Except it wasn’t, the layout was different. It was just a bar, and an unequivocally comfortable one, now that he’d finally figured out what had seemed wrong about it.

He settled in on his stool and sipped his beer.

It would be nice to take his time. The neighborhood was the sort he would have liked even if he hadn’t already grown fond of it on television. But he hoped he’d be done with this job in a hurry, and not just for the reason he’d given Dot.

Irene Macnamara might be a preservationist or a developer, Dot hadn’t known which, and he didn’t know either, not for a fact. But he figured the odds were something like ten to one that she wanted to keep Fells Point the way it was, while their client wanted to throw up hotels and outlet malls and bring in the chain stores. Because that’s where the profit was, in developing an area, not in fighting a holding action to keep it unchanged.

This didn’t necessarily mean she was a nice person. Keller knew it didn’t always work that way. She could be a holy terror in her private life, nagging her husband and slapping her children and poisoning the pigeons in the park. But as far as the future of Fells Point was concerned, Keller was on her side. He liked it the way it was.

Of course, that assumed she was a preservationist, and he didn’t really know that for sure. And that was the whole thing, because he really didn’t want to know one way or the other. Because he had the feeling that, the more he got to know about Irene Macnamara, the less inclined he’d be to do the job.

It would be easier all around if she was off the board before he had to return to New York.

Which was a shame, because he had to admit he liked it here. It wasn’t the bar from the TV series, and it wasn’t a place he’d ever seen before, but he still felt curiously comfortable. He didn’t have a favorite bar in New York, he didn’t really spend a great deal of time in bars, but he somehow sensed that this place, Counterpoint, would suit him as no New York bar ever had. And wouldn’t it be nice to have a place you came to every day, a place where everybody knew your name, and-

No, he thought. That was another television series, and it wasn’t real, either.

Twenty

He was back in New York late Sunday night, and at eight-fifteen the next morning he was at the State Supreme Court building on Centre Street, showing his summons to a guard who told him where to go. You had to pass through a metals detector, too. They had them in the schools now, and in an increasing number of public buildings. Pretty soon, he thought, you’d have to pass through a metals detector to go to the supermarket.

Probably necessary, though. All these kids bringing guns to class, and all these terrorists. What it did, though, was screw things up for the average law-abiding citizen. Years ago there’d been a rash of airplane hijackings. Before that you just walked onto a plane, the same as a train or a bus, but then because of the hijackers they routed you through a metals detector, and ever since it had been impossible for an ordinary citizen like Keller to bring a gun on a plane.

Well, maybe that wasn’t the best example…

He hadn’t brought a gun to court, but what he did bring was a book. He hadn’t mentioned his impending jury duty to that many people-he wasn’t friendly with that many people-but he’d said something to the girl who served him breakfast at the coffee shop, and to the doorman at the building next door to his, and to the guy who sold him his newspaper. They all said the same thing, and he had to wonder about the guy at the newsstand. He was a Pakistani, he’d been in the country less than two years, and he already knew you had to bring something to read when you pulled jury duty? Well, Keller told himself, the guy was in the business. He sold reading material, and maybe he had people coming in from time to time, saying they were on jury duty and needed something to read. He’d get the drift that way, wouldn’t he?

Keller’s novel was a thriller. The bad guy was a terrorist, but no metals detector had a chance against him, because he wasn’t carrying a gun. Instead he was equipped with a sufficient supply of a new supervirus to start a plague that would wipe out the city of New York, and possibly the whole country, and not inconceivably the world. The disease was a particularly nasty one, too, and 100 percent fatal, and it didn’t just kill you, either. You bled from every orifice, even your pores, and you convulsed and your bones ached and your tongue swelled up and your teeth fell out and your hands and feet turned purple and you went blind. Then you died, and not a moment too soon.

The heroine, a special operative from the Centers for Disease Control, was beautiful, of course, but she was also resourceful and decisive and tough-minded. She kept doing stupid things, though, and you wanted to take her by the shoulders and give her a good shaking.

Keller thought the hero was too good to be true. His wife had been a research scientist with the CDC, and she’d died from a similar disease, one she’d caught from an infected hamster at the research lab. The hero was grieving manfully, and bringing up their kids, all while investigating cases for some secret arm of the Treasury Department. He helped the old lady next door with yardwork, and he coached his kids with their homework, and every woman he met yearned to sleep with him or mother him, or both. Everyone was crazy about him, everyone except the heroine.

And Keller, but that was pretty much par for the course. White knights had never appealed much to Keller.

All morning long they called names, and people went to various rooms to see if they’d be selected for juries. Keller’s name wasn’t called, and by lunchtime he was well into his book. On the way out of the building, a woman fell into step beside him. “That book must be good,” she said. “You seemed really engrossed.”

“It’s okay,” he said. “A maniac’s going to start a plague that’ll wipe out New York unless this girl finds a way to stop him.”

“Woman,” she said.

Oh boy, he thought. “Well, she’s only six years old,” he said, “so I figured it would be acceptable to call her a girl.”

“She’s only six?”

“Going on seven.”

“And the fate of the world is in her hands?”

“It’s quite a responsibility at any age,” Keller said. “But it’s good preparation. Fifteen years from now she might have to sit on a jury and decide the fate of a fellow human being.”

“Awesome.”

“I’ll say.”

“You like Vietnamese food? There’s a place on the next block that’s supposed to be good. But I didn’t see it on the list they handed out.”

“An unlisted restaurant,” he said. “Off-limits to jurors. Let’s be daring, let’s check it out.”

They sent everybody home at three o’clock, and by four he was on the phone with Dot. “I had something to read,” he told her, “and I had a nice lunch. Vietnamese food.”

“Watch it, Keller. Next you’ll want to move there.”

“I may just have a couple more days of this. They’re picking juries, and if you don’t get picked in three days there’s a good chance they’ll send you home.”

“So don’t get picked.”

“So far so good,” he said. “We all sit in the jury room, and every once in a while they call a bunch of names and take the lucky winners to a courtroom.”

“And they’re the jury?”

“They go through voir dire, with lawyers asking them questions, and they stop when they’ve got twelve jurors and two alternates. Then they throw the others back in the pool.”

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