“Half in advance, half on completion.”
“So? That’s standard.”
“Patience,” she said. “What’s not standard is you can look it over, decide it’s impossible, and come on home. And the half they paid is yours to keep.”
“How’d you manage that?”
“By letting them talk me into it. It turns out I’m good at this, Keller.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“And I guess you could say they’re pretty desperate. One hand, the job has to be done. Other hand, it can’t be done. Add ’em up, it comes out desperate.”
“They probably got even more desperate,” he said, “when they offered the contract and got turned down.”
She poured herself some more iced tea. “I know they shopped this around. They wouldn’t come right out and say so, but they never would have taken my terms if they hadn’t run into a few brick walls along the way.”
“It’d be nice to know just who told them no.”
“Roger, for instance.”
“For instance,” he agreed.
“Well,” she said, “I think we have to assume they ran it past him. So we’re taking the usual precautions. Nobody’s meeting you, nobody knows who you are or where you’re coming from. Even if Roger’s out there in Albuquerque, even if he’s sitting in Petrosian’s lap, he’s never going to draw a bead on you. Because all you have to do is fly out there and fly back and you get paid.”
“Half,” he said.
“Half if all you do is take a look. The other half if you make it happen. And there’s an escalator.”
“Instead of a staircase?”
“No, of course not.”
“Because what’s the difference? He’s going to lose his footing on the escalator?”
“An escalator clause, Keller. In the contract.”
“Big bonus if you get him before he testifies. Smaller bonus if it’s after he starts but before he finishes.”
“While he’s on the stand?”
She rolled her eyes. “It’s going to take him several days to make all the trouble he can for our guys. Say he’s on the stand one day, and that night he slips on a banana peel and falls down the escalator.”
“Or finds some other way to break his neck.”
“Whatever. We get a bonus, but not as big as if he broke it a day earlier.” She shrugged. “That was just something to negotiate, because it’s not going to happen. You’ll go out there and come back, and they can console themselves by thinking how much money they just saved. Not just half the fee, but the bonus, too.”
“Because it’s impossible,” he said. “Except it’s never completely impossible. I mean, a bomb under a manhole cover on the route to the courthouse, say. Or a strike force of commandos hitting the place where he’s cooped up.”
“Desperate men,” she said, “led by Lee Marvin, their hard-bitten colonel.”
“Or a sharpshooter on a roof. But none of those are my style.”
“You could strap some explosive around your waist and run up and give him a hug,” she said, “but I don’t suppose that’s your style, either. Don’t worry about it. Spend a week, ten days tops. Have they got stamp dealers in Albuquerque? They must.”
“I’ve done business through the mails with a fellow in Roswell,” he said.
“ Roswell, New Mexico?”
“Wherever that is.”
“Well, it’s in New Mexico,” she said. “We know that much, don’t we?”
“But I don’t know if it’s near Albuquerque, and he may just deal through the mails. But sure, there’ll be stamp dealers there. There’d have to be.”
“So have fun,” she said. “Buy some stamps.”
“Or if it turns out there’s a way to do it…”
“So much the better,” she said, “but don’t knock yourself out. They’ll guard Petrosian like Fort Knox until he’s done testifying. Then they’ll stick him in the Witness Protection Program, and years from now somebody’ll spot him. And, if anybody still cares, you’ll get another crack at him.”
Keller’s motel was about a mile from the Arrowhead Inn on Candelaria where the feds were keeping Michael Petrosian. It might have been interesting to take a room in the Arrowhead himself, handy and risky at the same time, but he didn’t have the option. Petrosian and the men who guarded him were the motel’s only guests. The media referred to the place as an armed compound, and Keller didn’t have any quarrel with the term. He’d driven past it a few times, and had seen it over and over again on television, and that’s what it was, its parking lot filled with government cars, its doors manned by unsmiling men in suits and sunglasses. All it lacked was a watchtower and a few hundred yards of concertina wire.
Short of digging a tunnel, Keller couldn’t see any way in-or any way out once you got in. And Petrosian never left the place. His keepers brought food in, ordering it by phone and sending a couple of the suit-and-sunglasses boys to fetch it.
If you knew where they were going to order from, and if you could get to the food order before anybody picked it up, and if you knew which dishes were destined for Petrosian, and if you could slip something appropriate into his food, and if they let him eat it without trying it out on a food taster first, and-
They’d keep Petrosian under lock and key until it was time for him to go to the courthouse, and Keller had already heard an overfed U.S. marshal on CNN, boasting about their security precautions. There’d be a whole convoy of armored government vehicles to shepherd him from the motel to the courthouse and back again, and nobody would be able to get anywhere near him. Guy had a double chin and a smug expression, looked nothing like Dennis Weaver as McCloud, and Keller had a strong urge to wipe the smile off his well-fed face. But how?
He drove past the courthouse a couple of times, and you couldn’t get close to the place, not even in the pre-Petrosian days before they geared their security measures all the way up. You couldn’t loiter in the area unless you had business there-uniformed officers made sure of that-and you couldn’t get into the building without a pass. Keller supposed he could get hold of one. Find a newsman, take a press pass away from him, something like that. But then what? You had to pass through a metal detector in order to enter the building, and even if you could do the deed with your bare hands, how would you get out afterward?
No point in hanging around the courthouse. No point in loitering in the vicinity of the Arrowhead Inn, either.
It was easier to watch the whole thing on Court TV. And that’s what he was doing now, sitting in his motel room and muting the commercials, trying to figure out what they were selling. Eventually he’d be intrigued enough to turn the sound back on, and then you’d have him hanging on every word. It hadn’t happened to Keller yet, but he could see how it might.
He watched the commercial, his finger poised over the Mute button, and only when it ended did he put the sound back on. A commentator was saying something about the arrival at last of the much-anticipated Michael Petrosian, the government’s star witness, and they cut to an outside shot as a cameraman in a helicopter filmed the arrival of the government convoy.
And, just as he’d figured, there was no way anybody could get anywhere near the son of a bitch. There were no other cars around when the government cars pulled up, and the only spectators on the courthouse steps were a small contingent of photographers and reporters. They looked frustrated, penned as they were behind a rope barrier, unable to get close to their quarry. Even from the helicopter it was hard to spot Petrosian, just another body in a herd of bodies emerging from the cars and moving briskly up the flight of marble steps.
Lee Marvin and the boys would have their work cut out for them, he thought. Unless… well, suppose that was Lee up there in the helicopter? And he brings the chopper in as close as he can, steering one-handed and leaning out of the thing with a machine gun. That might work, but so would a tactical nuclear weapon, and one was about as likely as the other for Keller.
You had to hand it to the cameraman, though. He’d managed to single out Petrosian, and there the guy was, head lowered, shoulders hunched forward, climbing those steps.
And then, for some reason, the men circling Petrosian drew away from him. He turned, and raised his balding head so that he was looking right at the camera. He looked terrified, Keller thought. Stricken.
And Keller watched as the government’s star witness paled, clutched his hand to his chest, and pitched forward on his face.
“They think you’re a genius,” Dot said. “A miracle worker. And you know what, Keller? I have to say I agree with them.”
“I watched it on TV,” he said.
“Keller,” she said, “everybody watched it on TV. More people saw it than saw Ruby shoot Oswald. I must have seen it twenty times myself. I wasn’t watching while it happened, but who needs to in the Age of Instant Replay?”
“I saw it live.”
“And a few times since then, I’ll bet. Did I say twenty times? It was probably closer to fifty. And you know something, Keller? I still can’t figure out how you did it.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“I understand they’re looking for puncture marks,” she said, “like the Bulgarian that got stabbed with the umbrella, or whatever the hell it was. Then two days later he died. They’re looking for puncture marks and traces of a slow-acting poison.”
“And when they don’t find them?”
“That’ll show that it’s a poison without a trace, and one that was delivered without breaking the skin. A puff from an atomizer, say. He breathes it in, and a day or two later he has what looks for all the world like a heart attack.”
“It looked like one,” he said, “because that’s what it was.”
“Right, but how did you make it happen?”
“It just happened.”
“Help me find a way to believe that, Keller.”
“Ask yourself why I would lie to you.”
She thought about it. “You wouldn’t,” she said. “Well, he was overweight, he was out of shape, and he was under a lot of stress.”
“Must have been.”
“And those stairs looked steep. In the movies when somebody gets shot on the stairs he falls all the way to the bottom, but he just sort of flopped on his face and stayed where he fell. Keller? This is even better than the guy crossing the street, and why can’t I remember his name?”
“Right. There at least you were on the scene. When Petrosian got it you were watching TV in your motel room.”
“First there was a commercial,” he said, “and I couldn’t tell what they were advertising. And then Petrosian dropped dead, and the first thing I thought was the guy in the helicopter shot him. But nobody shot him, or stabbed him with an umbrella, or sprayed poisoned perfume in his face.”