While Stillman took the sun, Keller did the same. When Stillman got up and walked to the water’s edge, so did Keller. When Stillman waded in, to test his mettle in the surf, Keller followed in his wake.
When Keller came ashore, Stillman stayed behind. And, by the time Keller left the beach, carrying two towels and a cellular phone, Stillman had still not emerged from the water.
Why a thumb?
Keller, back in New York, pondered the question. He couldn’t see what a thumb had to do with murder. When you used a gun, it was your index finger that gave the trigger a squeeze. When you used a knife, you held it in your palm with your fingers curled around the handle. Your thumb might press the hilt, as a sort of guide, but a man could have no thumbs at all and still get the business end of a knife to go where he wanted it.
Did you use your thumbs when you garroted somebody? He mimed the motion, letting his hands remember, and he didn’t see where the thumbs had much of a part to play. Manual strangulation, now that was different, and you did use your thumbs, you used all of both hands, and would have a hard time otherwise.
Still, why a murderer’s thumb?
“Here’s what I don’t get,” Dot said. “You go off to some half-a-horse town at the ass end of nowhere special and you poke around for a week or two. Then you go to a vacation paradise in the middle of a New York winter and you’re back the same day. The same day!”
“I had an opening and I took it,” he said. “I wait and maybe I never get that good a shot at him again.”
“I realize that, Keller, and God knows I’m not complaining. It just seems like a shame, that’s all. Here you are, the two of you, fresh off a couple of planes from the frozen North, and before either one of you gets the chill out of your bones, you’re on a flight to New York and he’s rapidly approaching room temperature.”
“I stand corrected.”
“And it was like a bathtub.”
“That’s nice,” she said. “He could have opened his veins in it, but after you held his head underwater for a few minutes he no longer felt the need to. But couldn’t you have waited a few days? You’d have come home with a tan and he’d have gone into the ground with one. You meet your Maker, you want to look your best.”
He glanced over at the television set, where a thin young man and a fat young woman were having a food fight. Intermittently a couple of burly men in jumpsuits restrained one or both of them, only to let them resume pelting one another with bowls of salad.
“Jerry Springer,” Dot said. “It’s sort of a combination of Family Court and WWF Wrestling.”
“How come you’ve got the sound off?”
“Believe me, it’s worse if you can hear them.”
“I can see how it would be,” he said. “But lately you’ve always got the sound off. The picture on and the sound off.”
“If you had it the other way around I’d say you invented the radio. This way, what? The silent film?”
“I hardly look at it, Keller. Then what’s it doing on-is that what you were going to ask?”
“I might have.”
“For years,” she said, “I only put the set on to watch something. I had my afternoon programs, and then for a while I got hooked on those home shopping channels.”
“I never bought anything, but I would stare at the screen for hours. Part of it was there were no commercials to break your concentration.”
“Whole thing’s a commercial.”
“Well, no kidding,” she said. “I didn’t delude myself that I was watching PBS. Anyway, I watched QVC for a while, and then I got over it before I could spend my life savings on Diamonique.”
“And then he died,” she said, with a glance at the ceiling. “And he wasn’t much company, especially toward the end, but the house all of a sudden felt empty without him. It’s not like I was getting choked up all the time. And I didn’t feel myself longing for the comfort of his presence, because when was he ever a comfort?”
“Even so,” she said. “What I did, I took to keeping the radio going all the time. Just to have the sound of a human voice. Does that sound strange to you?”
“Not at all.”
“But I’ll tell you what’s the trouble with radio. You can’t mute the commercials.”
“I had the same thought myself not long ago. You can, by turning it off, but you don’t know when to turn it back on again.”
“TV spoils you. Somebody starts yammering at you, telling you their flashlight batteries keep going and going and going…”
“I kind of like that rabbit, though.”
“So do I, but I don’t want to hear about it. Watching it’s another matter. I tried NPR, but it’s not just commercials, it’s all the other crap you don’t want to hear. Traffic, weather, and please-send-us-money-so-we-won’t-have-to-keep-asking-you-for-money. So I started playing the TV all the time, muting it whenever it got on my nerves, and the commercials aren’t so bad when you can’t hear what they’re saying. Some of them, with the sound off you can’t even tell what they’re selling.”
“But you’ve got it mute all the time, Dot.”
“What I found out,” she said, “is that damn near everything on television is better with the sound off. And that way it doesn’t interfere with the rest of your life. You can read the paper or talk on the phone and the TV doesn’t distract you. If you don’t look at it, you get so that you forget it’s on.”
“Then why not turn it off?”
“Because it gives me the illusion that I’m not all alone in a big old barn of a house waiting for my arteries to harden. Keller, do you suppose we could change the channel? Not on the TV, on this conversation. Will you do me a big favor and change the subject?”
“Sure,” he said. “Dot, have you ever noticed anything odd about my thumb?”
“This one. Does it look strange to you?”
“You know,” she said, “I’ve got to hand it to you, Keller. That’s the most complete change of subject I’ve ever encountered in my life. I’d be hard put to remember what we were talking about before we started talking about your thumb.”
“Don’t tell me you’re serious? Let me see. I’d have to say it looks like a plain old thumb to me, but you know what they say. You’ve seen one thumb…”
“But look, Dot. That’s the whole point, that they’re not identical. See how this one goes?”
“Oh, right. It’s got that little…”
“Are mine both the same? Like two peas in a pod, as far as I can make out. This one’s got a little scar at the base, but don’t ask me how I got it because I can’t remember. Keller, you made your point. You’ve got an unusual thumb.”
“Do you believe in destiny, Dot?”
“Whoa! Keller, you just switched channels again. I thought we were discussing thumbs.”
“I was thinking about Louisville.”
“I’m going to take the remote control away from you, Keller. It’s not safe in your hands. Louisville?”
“You remember when I went there.”
“Vividly. Kids playing basketball, guy in a garage, and, if I remember correctly, the subtle magic of carbon monoxide.”
“Remember how I had a bad feeling about it, and then a couple got killed in my old room, and-“
“I remember the whole business, Keller. What about it?”
“I guess I’ve just been wondering how much of life is destined and preordained. How much choice do people really have?”
“If we had a choice,” she said, “we could be having some other conversation.”
“I never set out to be what I’ve become. It’s not like I took an aptitude test in high school and my guidance counselor took me aside and recommended a career as a killer for hire.”
“You drifted into it, didn’t you?”
“That’s what I always thought. That’s certainly what it felt like. But suppose I was just fulfilling my destiny?”
“I don’t know,” she said, cocking her head. “Shouldn’t there be music playing in the background? There always is when they have conversations like this in one of my soap operas.”
“Dot, I’ve got a murderer’s thumb.”
“Oh, for the love of God, we’re back to your thumb. How did you manage that, and what in the hell are you talking about?”
“Palmistry,” he said. “In palmistry, a thumb like mine is called a murderer’s thumb.”
“I grant you it’s an unusual-looking thumb,” she said, “although I never noticed it in all the years I’ve known you, and never would have noticed it if you hadn’t pointed it out. But where does the murderer part come in? What do you do, kill people by running your thumb across their life line?”
“I don’t think you actually do anything with your thumb.”
“I don’t see what you could do, aside from hitching a ride. Or making a rude gesture.”
“All I know,” he said, “is I had a murderer’s thumb and I grew up to be a murderer.”
“ ‘His Thumb Made Him Do It.’ “
“Or was it the other way around? Maybe my thumb was normal at birth, and it changed as my character changed.”
“That sounds crazy,” she said, “but you ought to be able to clear it up, because you’ve been carrying that thumb around all your life. Was it always like that?”
“How do I know? I never paid much attention to it.”
“Keller, it’s your thumb.”
“But did I notice it was different from other thumbs? I don’t know, Dot. Maybe I should see somebody.”
“That’s not necessarily a bad idea,” she said, “but I’d think twice before I let them put me on any medication.”
“That’s not what I mean,” he said.
The astrologer was not what he’d expected.
Hard to say just what he’d been expecting. Someone with a lot of eye makeup, say, and long hair bound up in a scarf, and big hoop earrings-some sort of cross between a Gypsy fortune-teller and a hippie chick. What he got in Louise Carpenter was a pleasant woman in her forties who had long since thrown in the towel in the battle to maintain her figure. She had big blue-green eyes and a low-maintenance haircut, and she lived in an apartment on West End Avenue full of comfortable furniture, and she wore loose clothing and read romance novels and ate chocolate, all of which seemed to agree with her.
“It would help,” she told Keller, “if we knew the precise time of your birth.”