“You’d think so.”

“So why does he wait? In Boston he may not have had much choice. He probably couldn’t ID you until you were on your way out of the place. But in Louisville he had all the time in the world. What was he waiting for?”

“Maybe he was being considerate.”

“Of whom, for Christ’s sake? Not of Hirschhorn, that’s for sure. Considerate of you? Like he wants to let you have your moment of triumph before he takes you off the board? Somehow I don’t think so. So who does that leave?” Her eyes widened. “Jesus. He was being considerate of the client.”

“I don’t know who else there is.”

“But why would he care about the client? Wait a minute. I’m actually beginning to get a glimmer here. He doesn’t want to screw things up for the client, so that’s why he lets the hit go down before he makes a move on the hitter. And what does he care about the client?”

“He’s in the business.”

“Which I suppose should have been obvious from the jump. I mean, look at his trademark. Two in the head with a twenty-two? That’s not the gunfight at the OK Corral. That’s a pro signing his work.”

“But what’s he got against me?” He got to his feet. “It can’t be personal. He doesn’t even know who I am. Is he trying to get me to join the union? I didn’t even know there was one, but I’d pay my dues along with everybody else.”

“It might be worth it,” she said, “if only for the group medical coverage. Keller, maybe you’re too self-centered.”

“He wants to kill me because I’m too self-centered?”

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“Maybe it’s not about you.”

“You know,” he said, “it couldn’t be about me, could it? Because he starts with the contract and waits for the hitter to show up. So where does that lead us? He’s in the business and he’s trying to kill other guys in the business? Is that possible, Dot? And wouldn’t we have heard something?”

“Remember the New York job?”

“Of course I remember it. We were just talking about it.”

“Remember I called the guy I generally call for work in the city?”

“His phone was disconnected.”

“Right.”

“And later you found out that…”

“Don’t stop there, Keller. Finish the thought.”

“That he was dead. Didn’t he die in bed?”

“So did that nice couple in Louisville, remember?”

“But I thought it was his heart or something.”

“His heart stopped,” she said, “and so did theirs. You die, your heart stops. That’s how it works.”

“You think he was killed?”

“I don’t think we can rule it out. If it went down as natural causes, well, how many of your jobs over the years went in the books that way?”

“A few.”

“And in every case,” she said, “their hearts stopped.”

“So you figure your guy had a job somewhere, and he did it, and this other guy waited until he was done and followed him home and…”

“And made his heart stop.”

“Why?”

“Why would someone do something like that? Is that your question?”

“Uh-huh, because I don’t get it.”

“Well, you do the same thing, Keller, so I’ll ask you the same question. Why do you do it?”

He thought about it. “ Andria told me it was my karma,” he said, “but I’m not sure I know what that means. Maybe it’s in the stars, I don’t know. Maybe my thumb has something to do with it, in ways I don’t begin to understand, and maybe-“

“Keller, stop it.”

“What’s the matter?”

“Don’t go philosophical on me,” she said. “I’m not asking what’s a nice girl like you doing in a business like this. I’m saying here you are, you do what you do, and a job comes in, and you take it. Why do you take it?”

“What do you mean, Dot? Why do I take it? It’s what I do.”

“And why do you do it? What’s in it for you?”

“What’s in it for me? Well, you know.”

“Humor me.”

“Well, money,” he said. “I get paid.”

“Bingo.”

“That’s what you wanted me to say? That I get paid for it? I thought it went without saying. So what’s the point? Guy who tried to kill me, he did it because somebody paid him?”

“No, he did it for the money.”

“What money?”

“It’s an investment,” she said. “Long term. Keller, why does Coke go after Pepsi? He’s killing off the competition.”

Fourteen

It sounded crazy.

“Maybe it is crazy,” Dot allowed. “Maybe he’s crazy. When did sanity get to be part of the job description? As far as the dollars-and-cents logic of it is concerned, I don’t see how you can argue the point. If you kill off the other people in your line of work, there’s going to be more work coming your way. Either you’ll increase your volume or boost your price, but one way or another you’ll be putting more dollars in your pocket.”

“But who thinks that way? All the years I’ve been doing this, all I ever did was come up here when I got a call and then go where I was sent. The old man would tell me where to go and what to do, and I went wherever and did whatever, and when I came home I got paid. I didn’t try to work out how to get more money. I didn’t have to, I always had more money than I needed.”

“You never went looking for business.”

“Of course not.”

“You let it come to you.”

“And it always did,” he said.

“Uh-huh. Remember when I ran that ad?”

“In the magazine. Not Soldier of Fortune, the other one. What was the name of it?”

“Mercenary Times.”

“We got one job out of it,” he recalled, “and we had to sneak around to keep the old man from finding out, and then the client tried to stiff us.”

“For all the good it did him. But the point is we went looking for work. I was the one who did the looking, but that’s what it amounted to.”

“Special circumstances. The old man was in a mood, turning jobs down left and right.”

“I know.”

“There was plenty of work out there. We just weren’t getting it.”

“I understand that, Keller. It was just an example.”

“Oh.”

“Remember when the call came for the Boston job? The client told me I was the first person he called, but I didn’t believe him.”

“Because he had problems working with women, I think you said.”

“I think he made a few calls before he got to me. I think guys who do what you do are getting harder to find, and I don’t think it’s because of a dramatic elevation in the moral climate of the nation. I think this son of a bitch has been running around the country shooting the shooters, and I think his strategy’s working. There are fewer of you guys around.”

“And more work for him.”

“More work and more money.”

“Dot, what could he possibly need with it? There’s plenty of work to go around.”

“There’s less than there was five years ago.”

“I’m working as much as I ever did.”

“Maybe because this guy’s thinning the ranks. He’s doing you a favor, if you want to look at it that way.”

“I don’t think so. Dot, how much money does he think he needs?”

“For some people, the phrase ‘enough money’ is as meaningless as the sign he held up in Louisville. There’s no such thing as enough.”

“What’s he going to do with it?”

“Buy something he couldn’t afford otherwise. Keller, you sink a lot of dollars into your stamp collection. Are there stamps you can’t afford to buy?”

“Are you kidding? There are stamps, plenty of them, that run into six figures.”

“And that artist you didn’t kill. Niswander. Did you ever buy one of his paintings?”

“No.”

“But you thought about it. You could have bought one if you wanted to, couldn’t you?”

“Sure.”

“Suppose you wanted a Picasso.”

Or a Hopper. “Okay,” he said. “I get it.”

“The guy’s a pig,” she said. “The more he gets the more he wants. He wants to be the only hitter out there so he can get all the money. What the hell’s the difference why he wants it? That’s not the question. The question is what are we going to do about it.”

If somebody was trying to kill you, what you did was kill him first. That much seemed obvious.

But how? Keller killed people all the time, it was what he did, but it was easier when you knew who they were and where to find them. The whole operation was fairly straightforward. It demanded resolve and ingenuity, and it helped if you could think on your feet, but it wasn’t rocket science.

“I keep thinking he’s from Louisville,” he said, “but he probably flew there himself, same as I did. You know, that may not have been him at the baggage claim. He could have given some mope ten bucks to hold up a sign while he was over to one side, keeping his eyes open.”

“There has to be a way to find him.”

“How?”

They were silent, considering the question. Then Dot said, “How would you do it, Keller?”

“That’s what I can’t figure, and-“

“No,” she said. “Suppose you were him. You want to be the Microsoft of murder and wipe out the competition. How would you go about it?”

“Oh, I see what you mean. How would I even know where to start? I don’t know anybody else who does what I do. It’s not like there’s an annual convention.”

“That’s good, because I’d hate to see all you guys in funny hats.”

“He doesn’t know anybody, either,” he said. “That’s why he has to stand around airports. But how does he know what airport to stand around in? You know what I’d do, Dot? Turn down work.”

“How’s that?”

“I get a call, can I do such and such a guy in Omaha. I find out all I can about the job and then I make some excuse, why I can’t do it.”

“Your grandmother’s funeral, that’s always good.”

“A conflict, a prior commitment, who cares what. I tell the man he’ll have to hire somebody else and then I go to Omaha and see who turns up.”

“And wait until your replacement does the deed before you take him out. Why wait?”

“So nobody knows. Say he takes me out that first day in Louisville. Say instead of looking for Ralph he just plants himself outside my door, and when I show my face he gives me my two in the head. Right away, the client knows.”

“And after the job?”