“Now I can offer you a couple of choices,” the desk clerk said. “Smoking or non, up or down, front or back.”

The motel was a Super 8. Keller went for nonsmoking, rear of the building, first floor.

“No choice on beds,” the clerk said. “All the units are the same. Two double beds.”

“That still gives me a choice.”

“How do you figure that?”

“I can choose which bed to sleep in.”

“Clear-cut choice,” the clerk said. “First thing you’ll do is drop your suitcase on one of the beds.”

“So?”

“So sleep in the other one. You’ll have more room.”

There were, as promised, two double beds in Room 147. Keller considered them in turn before setting his bag on top of the dresser.

Keeping his options open, he thought.

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From a pay phone, he called Dot in White Plains. He said, “Refresh my memory. Didn’t you say something about an accident?”

“Or natural causes,” she said, “though who’s to say what’s a natural cause in this day and age? Outside of choking to death on an organic carrot, I’d say you’re about as natural a cause of death as there is.”

“They provided a gun.”

“Oh?”

“A twenty-two auto, because that’s the kind guys like me prefer.”

“That’s a far cry from an organic carrot.”

“ ‘Use it and lose it.’ “

“Catchy,” Dot said. “Sounds like a failure to communicate, doesn’t it? Guy who furnished the gun didn’t know it was supposed to be natural.”

“Leaving us where? Does it still have to be natural?”

“It never had to, Keller. It was just a preference, but they gave you a gun, so I’d say they’ve got no kick coming if you use it.”

“And lose it.”

“In that order. Customer satisfaction’s always a plus, so if you can arrange for him to have a heart attack or get his throat torn out by the family dog, I’d say go for it. On the other hand-“

“How did you know about the dog?”

“What dog?”

“The one you just mentioned.”

“It was just an expression, Keller. I don’t know if he has a dog. I don’t know for sure if he’s got a heart, but-“

“It’s a golden retriever.”

“Oh?”

“Named Powhatan.”

“Well, it’s all news to me, Keller, and not the most fascinating news I ever heard, either. Where is all of this coming from?”

He explained about the photo on the Christmas card.

“What a jerk,” she said. “He couldn’t find a head and shoulders shot, the kind the papers run when you get a promotion or they arrest you for embezzlement? My God, the people you have to work with. Be grateful you were spared the annual Christmas letter, or you’d know how Aunt Mary’s doing great since she got her appendix transplant and little Timmy got his first tattoo.”

“Little Jason.”

“God, you know the kids’ names? Well, they wouldn’t put the dog’s name on the card and leave the kids off, would they? What a mess.”

“The guy was holding a sign. ‘Archibald.’ “

“At least they got that part right.”

“And I said that’s me, and he said, ‘Richard Archibald?’ “

“So.”

“You told me they said Nathan.”

“Come to think of it, they did. They screw that up too, huh?”

“Not exactly. It was a test, to make sure I wasn’t some smartass looking for a free ride.”

“So if you forgot the first name, or just didn’t want to make waves…”

“He’d have figured me for a phony and told me to get lost.”

“This gets better and better,” she said. “Look, do you want to forget the whole thing? I can tell you’re getting a bad feeling about it. Just come on home and we’ll tell them to shit in their hat.”

“Well, I’m already here,” he said. “It could turn out to be easy. And I don’t know about you, but I can use the money.”

“I can always find a use for it,” she said, “even if all I use it for is to hold on to. The dollars have to be someplace, and White Plains is as good a place as any for them.”

“That sounds like something he would have said.”

“He probably did.”

They were referring to the old man, for whom they had both worked, Dot living with him and running his household, Keller doing what he did. The old man was gone now-his mind had gone first, little by little, and then his body went all at once-but things went on essentially unchanged. Dot took the phone calls, set the fees, made the arrangements, and disbursed the money. Keller went out there, checked out the territory, closed the sale, and came home.

“Thing is,” Dot said, “they paid half in advance. I hate to send money back once I’ve got it in hand. It’s the same money, but it feels different.”

“I know what you mean. Dot, they’re not in a hurry on this, are they?”

“Well, who knows? They didn’t say so, but they also said natural causes and gave you a gun so you could get close to nature. To answer your question, no, I don’t see why you can’t take your time. Been to any stamp dealers, Keller?”

“I just got here.”

“But you checked, right? In the Yellow Pages?”

“It passes the time,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in Louisville before.”

“Well, make the most of it. Take the elevator up to the top of the Empire State Building, catch a Broadway show. Ride the cable cars, take a boat ride on the Seine. Do all the usual tourist things. Because who knows when you’ll get back there again.”

“I’ll have a look around.”

“Do that,” she said. “But don’t even think about moving there, Keller. The pace, the traffic, the noise, the sheer human energy-it’d drive you nuts.”

It was late afternoon when he spoke to Dot, and twilight by the time he followed the map to Winding Acres Drive, in Norbourne Estates. The street was every bit as suburban as it sounded, with good-sized one- and two-story homes set on spacious landscaped lots. The street had been developed long enough ago for the foundation plantings to have filled in and the trees to have gained some size. If you were going to raise a family, Keller thought, this was probably not a bad place to do it.

Hirschhorn’s house was a two-story center-hall colonial with the front door flanked by a symmetrical planting of what looked to Keller like rhododendron. There was a clump of weeping birch on the left, a driveway on the right leading to a garage with a basketball hoop and backboard centered over the door. It was, he noted, a two-and-a-half-car garage. Which was handy, he thought, if you happened to have two and a half cars.

There were lights on inside the house, but Keller couldn’t see anybody, and that was fine with him. He drove around, familiarizing himself with the neighborhood, getting slightly lost in the tangle of winding streets, but getting straightened out without much trouble. He drove past the house another couple of times, then headed back to the Super 8.

On the way back he stopped for dinner at a franchised steak house named for a recently deceased cowboy film star. There were probably better meals to be had in Louisville, but he didn’t feel like hunting for them. He was back at the motel by nine o’clock, and he had his key in the door when he remembered the gun. Leave it in the glove compartment? He went back to the car for it.

The room was as he’d left it. He stowed the gun in his open suitcase and pulled up an armchair in front of the television set. The remote control was a little different from the one he had at home, but wasn’t that one of the pleasures of travel? If everything was going to be exactly the same, why go anywhere?

A little before ten there was a knock on the door.

His reaction was immediate and dramatic. He snatched up the gun, chambered a round, flicked off the safety, and flattened himself against the wall alongside the door. He waited, his index finger on the trigger, until the knock came a second time.

He said, “Who is it?”

A man said, “Maybe I got the wrong room. Ralph, izzat you?”

“You’ve got the wrong room.”

“Yeah, you sure don’t sound nothin’ like Ralph.” The man’s voice was thick, and some of his consonants were a little off-center. “Now where the hell’s Ralph? Sorry to disturb you, mister.”

“No problem,” Keller said. He hadn’t moved, and his finger was still on the trigger. He listened, and he could hear footsteps receding. Then they stopped, and he heard the man knocking on another door-Ralph’s, one could but hope. Keller let out the breath he’d been holding and took in some fresh air.

He stared at the gun in his hand. That wasn’t like him, grabbing a gun and pressing up against a wall. And he’d just gone and done it, he hadn’t even stopped to think.

Very strange.

He ejected the chambered round, returned it to the clip, and turned the gun over in his hands. It was supposed to be the weapon of choice in his line of work, but it was more useful on offense than defense, handy for putting a bullet in the back of an unsuspecting head, but not nearly so handy when someone was coming at you with a gun of his own. In a situation like that you wanted something with stopping power, something that fired a big heavy slug that would knock a man down and keep him there.

On the other hand, when your biggest threat was some drunk looking for Ralph, anything beyond a rolled-up newspaper amounted to overkill.

But why the panic? Why the gun, why the held breath, why the racing pulse?

Why indeed? He waited until his heartbeat calmed down, then shucked his clothes and took a shower. Drying off, he realized how tired he was. Maybe that explained it.

He went right to sleep. But before he got into bed he made sure the door was locked, and he placed the little.22 on the bedside table.

Two

The first thing he saw when he woke up was the gun on the bedside table. Shaving, he tried to figure out what to do with it. He ruled out leaving it in the room, where the chambermaid could draw her own conclusions, but what were the alternatives? He didn’t want to carry it on his person.

That left the glove compartment, and that’s where he put it when he drove out to Winding Acres Drive. They gave you a free continental breakfast at the motel-a cup of coffee and a doughnut, and he wasn’t sure what continent they had in mind-but he skipped it in order to get out to Hirschhorn’s house as early as possible.

And was rewarded with the sight of the man himself, walking his dog.

Keller came up on them from the rear, and the man could have been anybody dressed for a day at the office, but the dog was unmistakably a golden retriever.

Keller had owned a dog for a while, an Australian cattle dog named Nelson. Nelson was long gone-the young woman whose job it was to walk him had, ultimately, walked off with him-and Keller had no intention of replacing either of them. But he was still a dog person. When February rolled around, he watched the American Kennel Club show on television, and figured one of these years he’d go over to Madison Square Garden and see it in person. He knew the different breeds, but even if he didn’t, well, how tough was it to recognize a golden retriever?