Keller looked at his watch. He had time to finish the coffee in his cup, he decided, but what was the point? She’d only fill it up again, and he’d run out of time before the woman ran out of coffee. He paid the check, left a good tip, and went out to his car, and twenty minutes later he was parked on Rugby Road, a picture-book suburban lane lined with mature shade trees that could have come straight from a Declan Niswander painting. His eyes were focused on a white frame house with dark green shutters standing a hundred yards or so down the road. The motor was idling, and Keller had a street map unfolded and draped over the steering wheel, so that anyone passing by would assume he was trying to figure out where he was.
But he knew where he was, and he knew he wouldn’t have long to wait. Lee Klinger was a creature of habit, as likely to change his routine as the waitress was to leave a coffee cup unfilled. Five mornings a week he caught the 8:11 train to Chicago, and if the weather was halfway decent he walked to the station, leaving the house at 7:48.
You could set your watch by the guy.
Keller, who had set his own watch by the car radio, watched the side door open at the appointed hour. Klinger, wearing a dark brown suit this morning, and carrying his tan briefcase, headed down the driveway and turned left at its end. He walked to the corner, where a traffic light controlled the intersection. He crossed Culpepper Lane with the light, then turned and waited for the light to change so that he could cross Rugby Road. There were no cars coming, so he could have jaywalked safely enough. In fact, Keller thought, he could have proceeded diagonally and crossed both streets at once. But, in the three days he’d been tagging him, Keller had gotten enough of a sense of Lee Klinger to know he’d do no such thing. He’d wait for the light, and he’d cross streets the way you were supposed to cross them.
Keller wondered who wanted the man dead, and why. He didn’t really want to know the answer, he’d learned over the years that he was better off not knowing, but it was impossible to avoid speculation. Some business rival? Someone who was sleeping with Mrs. Klinger? Somebody with whose wife Klinger himself was sleeping?
All of this seemed unlikely, given Keller’s impression of the man. But, when you came right down to it, what did Keller actually know about Klinger? Next to nothing, really. He was punctual, he obeyed traffic laws, he wore suits, and somebody wanted him dead. There was very likely a lot more to Klinger than that, but that was all Keller knew, and all he needed to know.
Keller put the Ford in gear, pulled away from the curb. He would let Klinger cross the street, and then when the light changed he’d drive through the intersection himself, and take another route to the suburban railway station. After that, well, he wasn’t sure what he’d do. Maybe there would be an opportunity on the platform, waiting for the train. Maybe he’d find his chance on the train, or in Chicago. And maybe not. There were some stamp dealers in Chicago, right there in the Loop where you could walk to them, and he had brought along the catalog he used as a checklist. He could make the rounds, buy some stamps. Dot hadn’t said anything about time being of the essence. He could give it another day or two.
The light changed. Another car, approaching the intersection, slowed. Klinger stepped off the curb, headed across the street. The other car accelerated abruptly, springing forward like a predatory animal. Klinger didn’t even have time to freeze in his tracks, let alone try to get away. The car hit him in mid-stride, sending him and his briefcase flying. Keller had barely registered what was happening before it was over. Klinger never knew what hit him.
“Okay,” Dot said. “I give up. How’d you do it?”
“All I did,” he said, “was watch it, and I barely did that. I was following him, but I knew where he was going, so I didn’t have to pay close attention.”
“That fucking Roger,” Dot said. “He’s changed his approach. Instead of hitting the hitter, he beats you to the punch.”
“It couldn’t have been Roger. Rogeretta, maybe.”
“It was a woman?”
“A little old lady. She was doing something like sixty miles an hour at the moment of impact. Car was an Olds, last year’s model, a big sedan.”
“Not your father’s Oldsmobile.”
“She said there was something wrong with the car. She stepped on the brake, but all it did was go faster.”
“Definitely not your father’s Oldsmobile.”
“It happens a lot,” Keller said, “with all kinds of cars. The driver steps on the brake and the car speeds up instead of slowing down. The one common denominator is the driver’s always getting along in years.”
“And I don’t suppose it’s really the brake.”
“They get confused,” he said, “and they think they’re stepping on the brake pedal, and it’s the accelerator. So they panic and step down harder, to force the brakes to work, and the car goes faster, and, well, you see where it’s going.”
“Straight into Klinger.”
“She took her foot off the gas,” he said, “to stop for the light, and her car slowed down, and Klinger started across, and then she stepped on what was supposed to be the brake pedal. And the rest is history.”
“And so is Klinger,” Dot said. “And you were right there.”
“I saw it happen,” he said. “I have to tell you, it gave me a turn.”
“I saw a man die.”
She gave him a look. “Keller,” she said, “you see men die all the time, and you’re generally the cause of death.”
“This was different,” he said. “The unexpectedness of it. And it was so violent.”
“It’s usually violent, Keller. It’s what you do.”
“But I didn’t do it,” he said. “I just sat there and watched it. Then the cops came and-“
“And you were still there?”
“I figured it might be riskier if I drove away. You know, leaving the scene of an accident. Even if I wasn’t a part of the accident.” He shrugged. “They took a statement and waved me on. I told them I didn’t really see anything, and they had another witness who saw the whole thing, and it’s not as though there was any dispute about what had happened. Except that the little old lady still thinks it was the car’s fault and not hers.”
“But we know otherwise,” she said. “And so does the client.”
“Thinks you’re a genius, Keller. Thinks you arranged the whole thing, figures you found some perfectly ingenious way to get Klinger to step in front of that lady’s car.”
“The customer,” she said, “is always right. Remember? Especially when he pays up, which this one did, like a shot. The job’s done and the client’s happy and we’ve been paid. Do you see a problem, Keller? Because I don’t.”
He thought about it.
“Keller? What did you do after Klinger got flattened?”
“He didn’t get flattened. It hit him and he went flying, and-“
“Spare me. I know you stuck around and gave a statement like a good citizen, but then what did you do?”
“I came home,” he said. “But not immediately. As a matter of fact, the first thing I did was go into Milwaukee and see a couple of stamp dealers.”
“You bought some stamps for your collection.”
“Well, yes. I was there anyway, and I didn’t figure there was any reason to hurry home.”
“You were right,” she said. “There wasn’t. And we’ve been paid, and now you can buy some more stamps. Are you all right, Keller? You seem a little bit out of it, and nobody gets jet lag coming home from Milwaukee.”
“I’m fine,” he said. “It just seems strange. That’s all.”
Three weeks later Keller was eating huevos rancheros at Call Me Carlos, on the edge of Albuquerque ’s Old Town. The menu had the same logo as the sign outside, with a grinning Mexican in an oversize sombrero. You knew at a glance that the place was Mexican-owned, Keller thought, because no gringo would have dared use such a broad caricature.
If there was any doubt, the food resolved it. They served the best huevos rancheros he’d had, with the possible exception of a little cafй he knew in Roseburg, Oregon.
He’d said as much to Dot the previous night. “Oh, spare me, Keller,” she’d replied. “ Roseburg, Oregon? Keller, you wanted to move there. Remember?”
It had been a mistake to mention Roseburg, and he’d realized it the minute he said it. Usually it was Dot who mentioned the town, throwing it up at him whenever he said anything nice about any of the places he visited.
“I didn’t exactly want to move there,” he protested.
“You looked at houses.”
“I thought about it,” he said, “the way you think about things, but I didn’t-“
“The way you think about things, Keller. Not the way I think about things. There’s something else you could be thinking about, instead of houses in Roseburg, Oregon.”
“I know,” he said. “And anyway, I wasn’t.”
“Thinking about houses? You said…”
“I was thinking about that cafй, and all I was thinking was that it was better than where I’ve been having breakfast. Except it probably isn’t, because memory improves things.”
“It would have to,” Dot said, “or we’d all kill ourselves.”
“And as far as the other thing I could be thinking about, I think it’s impossible.”
“Doesn’t surprise me.”
“A few more plates of huevos rancheros,” he said, “and I think it’ll be time for me to come home.”
“Without looking at houses?”
“They’re mostly adobe,” he said, “and I have to say they look pretty from the outside, but that’s as much as I want to see of them. I’ll stay long enough to make it look good, but then I’m coming home.”
He finished his eggs, finished his second cup of coffee, and went out to his rented Toyota. The sun was bright, the air cool and dry. If you had to make a pointless trip somewhere, this wasn’t the worst place for it.
A week earlier he’d taken the train to White Plains and sat across the kitchen table from Dot while she laid it all out for him. Michael Petrosian was in federal custody, guarded around the clock while he waited to testify. Without his testimony, the government didn’t have much of a case. With it, they could put some important people away for a long time.
“That’s why,” he’d said. “The question is how.”
“Sounds impossible, doesn’t it?”
“That’s the word that came to mind.”
“It came to my mind, too. It came to my lips, too, along with the phrase ‘I think we’ll pass on this one.’ “
“But you changed your mind.”
“The minute he agreed that you get paid either way.”