“Edward G. Robinson,” she said. “Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar. When the hell did Edward G. Robinson ever wear a loincloth?”

“I was wondering about the loincloth.”

“Jesus, Keller. Where was I?”

“They never hired a hit man.”

“Schweitzer and Gandhi. Well, they never did. You don’t have to be a good human being to be a good client. All you have to do is play straight with us and pay what you owe. Which Regis Buell might or might not have done, but how will we ever know?”

“I really liked Niswander’s paintings, Dot.”

“Look, I’ll take your word for it he’s the real thing. What the hell, Buell must have thought so himself. That’s what made him worth killing.”

“It’s not just that he’s good. I responded to his work.”

“You wanted to hang him on your wall.”

“Dot, I wanted to climb right up into one of his trees and hide in the branches. A man who can paint something that does that to me, how can I kill him?”

“We could have resigned the account.”

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“So? Then someone else does it.”

“At least the blood’s not on your hands.”

“The man’s just as dead. He’s not going to be painting any more trees. What do I care about blood on my hands?”

She was silent for a long moment. Then she said, “Look, what’s done is done, and I’m not even going to say you were wrong to do it. What do I know about right and wrong? I’m in the same glass house, Keller. I’m not going to be heaving boulders at you.”

“But?”

“But this isn’t the first time one of our clients purchased the agricultural real estate.”

“Huh? Oh, bought the farm.”

“ Acre by acre.”

“There was that cutie pie in Iowa, played games with us and tried to screw us out of the final payment.”

“And the one in Washington, had you convinced your orders came straight from the White House. Forget those two, Keller. They had it coming.”

“And one other time,” he admitted, “when two clowns each hired us to do the other. And he”-his eyes rose to the ceiling-“said yes to both jobs. What choice did I have? How could I do the job without tagging a client?”

“The way I remember it, you tagged them both.”

“All I can say is it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“And maybe it was. You know, a lot of people must have had it in for Regis Buell. It’s a shame you couldn’t get one of them to hire you, because this way there was no money in killing him.”

“No.”

“In fact,” she said, “his death means we don’t get paid for Niswander. Who’s still alive and well, so why should we?”

“On the other hand, we got half in front from Buell and he’s not going to ask for it back.”

“He’s not, and half a loaf is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Look at it one way, it was money I should have sent back at the beginning, and now I don’t have to.”

“And it’s all yours,” he said.

“How do you figure that?”

“I screwed up,” he said. “No way I’m entitled to my share. So you keep it all, and you wind up the same as if I did the job and we collected the second payment and split down the middle. You look puzzled, Dot. All of half is half of all.”

“ ‘All of half is half of all.’ You know who you sound like, Keller? The Three Musketeers.”

“It’s true, though, and-“

“It’s crap,” she said. “Keller, you and I are the Two Musketeers, get it? You earned your share when you made sure Buell didn’t miss his train.”

“I don’t know, Dot.”

“I do. Knock knock.”

“Huh?”

“Weren’t you ever a kid, Keller? Come on. Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“ Sharon.”

“Huh?”

“Keller, play the game.”

“ Sharon who?”

“ Sharon share alike. We each did something we shouldn’t have done, and we both came out of it okay. But I’ll make you a deal, Keller. You stop killing our clients and I’ll stop accepting jobs in New York. Deal?”

“Deal. Only…”

“Only what?”

“Well, you can still book local assignments. Just don’t book them for me.”

“Assuming I can find someone from out of town that I can work with.”

“You’ve already got somebody.”

“Used to.”

“Just because his phone’s out doesn’t mean he’s gone for good.”

“In this case it does,” she said. “Seeing as he’s dead.”

“Dead?”

“I made a few calls,” she said, “and I checked with people who checked with other people. A little over a month ago the police kicked his door in after a neighbor complained about the smell.”

“I don’t suppose it was clogged drains.”

“They found him in bed. Except for the decomposition, you’d have thought he was sleeping. Which he was, I guess. He went to sleep and never woke up.”

“Heart attack?”

“I guess. Nobody showed me the death certificate.”

“How old?”

“Somebody said but I forget. Younger than either of us, I remember that much.”

“Jesus.”

“Maybe he used drugs, Keller.”

“In this business? You screw around with drugs and you don’t last.”

“Well,” she said, “he didn’t. And don’t tell me there aren’t plenty of guys who use something when they’re not working. Or even when they are. Not everyone lives as clean as you, Keller.”

“Maybe he had a congenital heart condition.”

“Maybe. People die, Keller, and not all of them get a hand from a helpful guy like yourself. Far as that goes, people fall in front of subway trains.”

“Or jump.”

“Or jump. They don’t all get pushed.” She got to her feet. “But let me get your share of the fee from one who did, and you can go home. Say, what about that tree you fell in love with? What happens to it now?”

“Niswander will get it back, along with the rest of his paintings, since the mystery buyers represented by all those little red dots will fail to materialize. And I guess his new dealer will offer it for sale sooner or later.”

“At a much higher price.”

“Not necessarily, since the artist is still alive.”

“So he is. Will you buy it?”

“I don’t know. I really like the painting, I liked all of his paintings.”

“But?”

He frowned. “But I’m not sure I want to get into all that, Dot. The whole art scene. I think maybe I’m better off sticking with stamps.”

She pinched his cheek. “Perfect,” she said. “You know what they say, Keller. You stick to your stamps and your stamps will stick to you.”

Eight

Keller got out of the taxi at Bleecker and Broadway because that was easier than trying to tell the Haitian cabdriver how to find Crosby Street. He walked to Maggie’s building, a former warehouse with a forbidding exterior, and rode up to her fifth-floor loft. She was waiting for him, wearing a black canvas coat of the sort you saw in western movies. It was called a duster, probably because it was cut long to keep the dust off. Maggie was a small woman-elfin, he had decided, was a good word for her-and this particular duster reached clear to the floor.

“Surprise,” she said, and flung it open, and there was nothing under it but her.

Keller, who’d met Maggie Griscomb at an art gallery, had been keeping infrequent company with her for a while now. Just the other day a chance remark of his had led Dot to ask if he was seeing anybody, and he’d been stuck for an answer. Was he? It was hard to say.

“It’s a superficial relationship,” he’d explained.

“Keller, what other kind is there?”

“The thing is,” he said, “she wants it that way. We get together once a week, if that. And we go to bed.”

“Don’t you at least go out for dinner first?”

“I’ve given up suggesting it. She’s tiny, she probably doesn’t eat much. Maybe eating is something she can only do in private.”

“You’d be surprised how many people feel that way about sex,” Dot said. “But I’d have to say she sounds like the proverbial sailor’s dream. Does she own a liquor store?”

She was a failed painter, he explained, who’d reinvented herself as a jewelry maker. “You bought earrings for the last woman in your life,” Dot reminded him. “This one makes her own. What are you going to buy for her?”

“Nothing.”

“That’s economical. Between not giving her gifts and not taking her out to dinner, I can’t see this one putting much of a strain on your budget. Can you at least send the woman flowers?”

“I already did.”

“Well, it’s something you can do more than once, Keller. That’s one of the nice things about flowers. The little buggers die, so you get to throw them out and make room for fresh ones.”

“She liked the flowers,” he said, “but she told me once was enough. Don’t do it again, she said.”

“Because she wants to keep things superficial.”

“That’s the idea.”

“Keller,” she said, “I’ve got to hand it to you. You don’t find that many of them, but you sure pick the strange ones.”

“Now that was intense,” Maggie said. “Was it just my imagination, or was that a major earth-shaking experience?”

“High up there on the Richter scale,” he said.

“I thought tonight would be special. Full moon tomorrow.”

“Does that mean we should have waited?”

“In my experience,” she said, “it’s the day before the full moon that I feel it the strongest.”

“Feel what?”

“The moon.”

“But what is it you feel? What effect does it have on you?”

“Gets me all moony.”

“Moony?”

“Makes me restless. Heightens my moods. Sort of intensifies things. Same as everybody else, I guess. What about you, Keller? What does the moon do for you?”

As far as Keller could tell, all the moon did for him was light up the sky a little. Living in the city, where there were plenty of streetlights to take up the slack, he paid little attention to the moon, and might not have noticed if someone took it away. New moon, half moon, full moon-only when he caught an occasional glimpse of it between the buildings did he know what phase it was in.

Maggie evidently paid more attention to the moon, and attached more significance to it. Well, if the moon had had anything to do with the pleasure they’d just shared, he was grateful to it, and glad to have it around.