“Something you said last time,” he said. “About how my thoughts are powerful.”

“Oh, right, I’ll quick pick up the phone and sell that to the client. ‘My guy closed his eyes and thought real hard,’ I’ll tell him, ‘and that’s why your guy decided to hang himself. It’s a suicide, but we get an assist.’ How can they possibly say no?”

“They cut the deal,” Keller said doggedly, “and next thing you know the guy’s dead.”

“Probably because he knew somebody was coming for him and he didn’t want to wait.” She leaned back in her chair. “For your information,” she said, “I tried on something similar. ‘You wanted him dead and he’s dead,’ I said. ‘So we should get paid in full.’ But it was just a negotiating technique, a counter for them asking for their initial payment back. They laughed at me, and I laughed at them, and we left it where we knew we were going to leave it.”

“With us getting half.”

“Right. Keller, you didn’t really expect the whole thing, did you?”

“No, not really.”

“And does it make a difference? I mean, are you stretched financially? It seems to me you’ve had a batch of decent paydays not too far apart, but maybe it’s been going out faster than it’s been coming in. Is that it?”

“No.”

“Or maybe there’s some stamp you were counting on buying with the Palmieri proceeds, and now you can’t. Is it anything like that?”

“No.”

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“Well, don’t leave a girl hanging, Keller. What is it?”

He thought for a moment. “It’s not the money,” he said.

“I hope you’re not going to tell me it’s the principle of the thing.”

“No,” he said. “Dot, remember when I was talking about retiring?”

“Vividly. You had enough money, and I told you you’d go nuts, that you needed a hobby. So you started collecting stamps.”

“Right.”

“And all of a sudden you couldn’t afford to retire anymore, because you spent all your money on stamps. So we were back in business.”

That was a simplification, he thought, but it was close enough. “Even without the stamps,” he said, “I couldn’t have retired. Well, I could have, but I couldn’t have stayed retired.”

“You’re saying you need the work.”

“I guess so, yes.”

“You need to do what you do.”

“Evidently.”

“Some inner need.”

“I suppose. I don’t get a kick out of it, you know.”

“I never thought you did.”

“Sometimes, you know, it’s tricky, and there’s the satisfaction that comes from solving a problem. Like a crossword puzzle. You fill in the last square and the thing’s complete.”

“Stands to reason.”

“But that’s only some of the time. Mostly all it is is work. You go someplace, you do the job, you come home.”

“And you get paid.”

“Right. And I don’t mind long layoffs between jobs. I find ways to keep busy, and that was true even before I started with the stamps.”

“But all of a sudden something’s different.”

“Roger’s got something to do with it,” he said. “The idea that somebody’s out there, you know? Lurking in the shadows, waiting to make his move. Doesn’t even know who I am and he wants to kill me anyway.”

“Stress,” Dot said.

“Well, I suppose. And, you know, once we figured out what he was doing and why, the bastard disappeared.”

“We stopped giving him opportunities,” she pointed out. “Once you started flying to less obvious airports and we stopped letting the client send somebody to meet you, we shut Roger out. I’d have to call that a good thing, Keller. You’re still breathing, right?”

“Right.”

“And the last three jobs, well, even if he was lurking on the scene, he still couldn’t get a look at you, could he? Because you didn’t do anything.”

“I would have,” he said. “If I’d had any kind of a chance.”

“But you didn’t, and if Roger was around all he could do was stand there with his thumb up his nose, and you came home and got paid. I don’t see a major problem here, Keller.”

“It’s being teased like this,” he said. “Packing my bag, going someplace, figuring out what I’ll do and how I’ll do it, and the rug’s pulled out from under me. I don’t like it, that’s all.”

“I can understand that.”

He lowered his eyes, sorted out his thoughts. Then he said, “Dot, I almost killed somebody.”

“Except you couldn’t, because he killed himself first.”

“No, forget that. Here.”

“Here?”

“Not here,” he said, gesturing. “Not right here in White Plains. In New York. And not for business.”

She looked at him sharply. “What’s that leave, Keller? For pleasure?”

“Dot, for God’s sake.”

“Well, what else is there?”

“Personal reasons.”

“Oh, right,” she said, relaxing. “Don’t take it personally, Keller, but sometimes I forget you have a personal life.”

“There’s this woman I was seeing,” he said.

“Dresses in black.”

“That’s the one.”

“Wants to keep it superficial, won’t have dinner with you or let you buy her anything.”

“Right.”

“And you wanted to kill her?”

“I didn’t exactly want to,” he said, “but I almost did.”

“No kidding,” Dot said. “What did she do to piss you off, if you don’t mind my asking? Was she sleeping with somebody else?”

“No,” he said, and then thought about it. “Or maybe she was, for all I know. I never gave it much thought.”

“I guess you’re not the jealous type. So it must have been something serious, like eating crackers in bed.”

“I wasn’t angry.”

“If I just sit here quietly,” Dot said, “you’ll explain.”

When he’d finished, Dot took the empty pitcher inside and came back with a full one. “This weather,” she said, “I drink gallons of this stuff. You suppose it’s possible to drink too much iced tea?”

“No idea.”

“I guess everything’s bad for you if you take in enough of it.”

“I guess.”

“Keller,” she said, “the woman’s a loose end. Getting the impulse to tie her off doesn’t make you a homicidal maniac.”

“I never said-“

“I know what you never said. You think you’re frustrated because you keep going out on jobs and fate won’t let you pull the trigger. And maybe you are, but that’s not why the hair stood up on the back of your neck when your girlfriend said what she did.”

“It was more that I got a tingling in my hands.”

“Thanks for clearing that up, Keller. I repeat, she’s a loose end. You’d have had the same impulse if you’d just come back from depopulating Kosovo. And it wouldn’t have just been a passing thought, either. You’d have closed the sale.”

“She didn’t do anything, Dot.”

“And you’d have made sure she never did.”

He thought about it. “Maybe,” he acknowledged. “But I didn’t, and I never heard anything from her. By now she’s probably been in and out of half a dozen other superficial relationships. Odds are she never even thinks of me.”

“You’re probably right,” Dot said. “Let’s hope so.”

Six weeks later, Keller got a phone call, made another trip to White Plains. He was back in his apartment around one in the afternoon, and two hours later he was at JFK, waiting to board a TWA flight to St. Louis.

During the flight, Keller read the SkyMall catalog. There were articles he wanted to buy, and he knew he wouldn’t have given them a second thought under other circumstances. This happened all the time when he flew, and once he was on the ground the urge to order the supervalue luggage or the handy Pocket Planner vanished forever, or at least until his next flight. Maybe it was the altitude, he thought. Maybe it undercut your sales resistance.

No one was supposed to meet him at the airport, and no one did. Keller took a slip of paper from his wallet. He’d already committed the name and address to memory, but he read them again, just to be certain. Then he went outside and got a cab.

The target was a man named Elwood Murray. He lived in Florissant, a suburb north of the city, and had an office on Olive, halfway between City Hall and the city’s trademark arch.

Keller had the cab drop him at a lunch counter a block from Murray ’s office. A sign in the window said the daily special was Three-Alarm Chili, and that sounded good to Keller. If it was as good as it sounded, he could come back for more. There was no rush on this one, Dot had told him. He could take his time.

But instead he went directly to Murray ’s office building. It was six stories tall and a few years past its prime. Murray ’s name was listed on the board in the lobby: Murray, Elwood, #604. The self-service elevator was one of the slowest Keller had encountered, and he found himself urging it upward. If he’d known it was going to be this slow he’d have taken the stairs.

Murray had his name painted on the frosted glass of his office door, along with some initials that didn’t mean anything to Keller. There was a light on, and Keller turned the knob, opened the door. A man a few years older than Keller sat behind a big oak desk. He was in shirtsleeves, and his suit jacket was hanging from a peg on the side wall.

“Elwood Murray?”

“Yes?”

“I’ll just need a minute of your time,” Keller said, and closed the door. That would keep them from being observed by anyone passing in the hall, but the act was enough to alert Murray, and one look at Murray ’s face was enough to put Keller in motion. Murray moved first, his hand darting into the desk’s center drawer, and Keller threw himself forward, hurling himself against Murray ’s desk and shoving it all the way to the wall, pinning Murray and his chair, jamming the drawer shut on his hand.

Murray couldn’t open the drawer, couldn’t get his hand out, couldn’t move. Keller could move, though, and did, and got his hands on the man.

“Oh, good,” Dot said. “You got the message.”

“What message?”

“On your machine. You didn’t get it? Then why are you calling?”

“ Mission accomplished,” he said.

There was a pause. Then she said, “I suppose that means what I think it means.”

“There aren’t too many different things it could mean,” he said. “Remember the errand you asked me to run this morning? Well, I ran it.”