“You’re not still in New York, then.”

“No, of course not. I’m in… well, I can see the Arch from here.”

“And I don’t suppose it’s the McDonald’s across the street, is it? And you already did what you went there to do.”

“Or I wouldn’t be calling. Dot, what the hell’s the matter?”

“They called it off,” she said.

“They…”

“Called it off. Changed their minds. Canceled the contract.”

“Oh.”

“But you didn’t know that.”

“How would I know?”

“You wouldn’t, not unless you happened to check your machine, and why would you do that? Well, what’s your plan now, Keller?”

Advertisement..

“I thought I’d come home.”

“You’re not going to visit some stamp dealers? Spend a few days, find a nice Mexican restaurant?”

“Not this time.”

“Probably just as well,” she said. “Come home, come see me, and we’ll get this sorted out.”

“On the way out,” he said, “I had the urge to buy a Pocket Planner. Coming home, it was a set of college courses on video. The country’s best lecturers, the ad said.”

“Would you watch them?”

“Of course not,” Keller said. “Any more than I’d use the Pocket Planner. What do I want to plan? It’s funny how it works. You stow your carry-on in the overhead compartment, you make sure your seat belt’s securely fastened, and you start wanting things you never wanted before. They have these in-flight phones, and you can call and order this stuff at no charge.” He frowned. “No charge for the phone call, that is.”

“What did you buy?”

“Nothing,” he said. “I never do, but I always think about it.”

“Keller…”

“Why’d they call it off?”

“I don’t know,” she said, “because I don’t know why they called it on in the first place. Who was he, anyway?”

“He had an office,” Keller said, “all by himself, and he had some initials after his name, but I don’t remember what they were. I guess he was some kind of businessman, and I got the impression he wasn’t doing too well at it.”

“Well, maybe he owed money, and maybe he paid up after all. Which is more than they’re going to do.”

“The client, you mean.”

“Right.”

“Paid half in front, and doesn’t want to pay the balance.”

“Right again.”

“I don’t see why. I did what I was supposed to do.”

“But by the time you did it,” she said, “you weren’t supposed to do it.”

“Not my fault.”

“I agree with you, Keller.”

“They didn’t say go out there and await further instructions. They said do the job, and I did the job. What’s the problem?”

“The problem is they hate paying for a job they tried to cancel. As a matter of fact, they wanted their advance back.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Exactly what I told them.”

“I did the job,” he said. “I should get paid in full.”

“I told them that, too.”

“And?”

“You could call it a Mexican standoff,” she said, “if you’re prepared to run the risk of being politically incorrect.”

“We keep what they already paid us.”

“You got it.”

“And they keep what they owe us.”

“If you want to call it that.”

“I don’t know what else to call it,” he said. “Why a Mexican standoff, do you happen to know? What’s Mexican about it?”

“You’re the stamp collector, Keller. Is there a Mexican stamp with a famous standoff pictured on it?”

“A famous standoff? What’s a famous standoff?”

“I don’t know. The Alamo, maybe.”

“The Alamo wasn’t a standoff. It was a massacre, everybody got killed.”

“If you say so.”

“And the Mexicans wouldn’t put it on a stamp. It’s the Texans who made a shrine out of the place.”

“The ones who got massacred.”

“Well, not the same ones, but other Texans. The Mexicans would just as soon forget the whole thing.”

“All right,” she said. “Forget the Alamo. Forget the Maine, too, while you’re at it. If you want to know why they call it a Mexican standoff, I’m sure you can look it up. Spend an afternoon at the library, ask the lady at the research desk to help you out. That’s what she’s there for, Keller.”

“Dot…”

“Keller, it’s an expression. Who cares where it came from?”

“It won’t keep me up nights.”

“And who cares about the money? You don’t. It’s not about the money, is it?”

He thought about it. “No,” he said. “I guess not.”

“It’s about being right. They don’t pay you, they’re saying you’re wrong. You settle for half, you’re admitting you’re wrong.”

“But I did what I was supposed to do, Dot! They didn’t say go there and wait for instructions. They didn’t say find the guy and count to ten. They said-“

“I know what they said, Keller.”

“Well.”

“You were in a hurry,” she said, “because of the way things have been going lately, and because there’s always the shadow of Roger lurking in the wings. On the one hand you’re absolutely right, you did what you were supposed to do, but there’s something else to think about that’s got nothing to do with the client.”

“What’s that?”

“Normally you take your time,” she said. “A couple of days, anyway. Sometimes a week, sometimes longer.”

“So?”

“Why, Keller?”

“Why was I in a hurry? You just told me why I was in a hurry.”

She shook her head. “Why do you take your time? I’ll tell you, Keller, sometimes it’s frustrating for the folks on the home front. You don’t just take your time. You dawdle.”

“I dawdle?”

“You probably don’t, but it seems that way from a distance. And it’s not just because there’s a good place for breakfast, or the motel television set gets HBO. You take your time so you can make sure you do the job right.”

She went on talking and he found himself nodding. He got the point. Because he’d been in such a rush, Murray had seen it coming, had been reaching for a gun when Keller got to him. If the desk drawer had been open to begin with, if Murray had been a little bit faster or Keller a little bit slower…

“I’m not saying it’s anything to worry about,” Dot said. “It’s over and you came out of it okay. But you might want to think about it.”

“I’ll think about it,” he said, “whether I want to or not.”

“I suppose you will. Keller?”

“What?”

“You’re fussing with your thumb.”

“I am?”

“The funny one. I forget what you called it.”

“Murderer’s thumb.”

“Rubbing it, hiding it behind your fingers.”

“Just a nervous habit,” he said.

“I suppose twiddling it would be worse. Look, lighten up, huh? Nothing went wrong, you went out and came back the same day, and on an hourly basis I’d say you made out like a bandit.”

“I guess.”

“But?”

“I was thinking about Elwood Murray.”

“Never think about them, Keller.”

“I hardly ever do. Murray, though, he got killed for no reason.”

She was shaking her head. “There’s always a reason,” she said. “He pissed somebody off. Then he straightened it out, but how long would it stay that way? How long before he pissed somebody else off big-time, and somebody picked up a phone?”

“He did look like the kind of guy who would piss people off.”

“There you go,” she said.

Nineteen

“I suppose I should be glad you recognize my voice,” Dot said. “You haven’t heard it much lately, have you?”

“I guess not.”

“I turned a couple of things down,” she said, “because they didn’t smell right. But this one smells as good as morning coffee, and we’re definitely the first ones called, so you won’t have to be looking over your shoulder all the time. So why don’t you get on a train and I’ll tell you all about it?”

“Hold on,” Keller said, and put the phone down. When he picked it up again he said, “Sorry, the water was boiling.”

“I heard it whistling. I’m glad you told me what it was. For a minute there I thought you were having an air raid.”

“No, just a cup of tea.”

“I didn’t know you were that domestic,” she said. “You wouldn’t happen to have a soufflй in the oven, would you?”

“A soufflй?”

“Never mind, Keller. Pour the tea in the sink and come up and see me. I’ll give you all the tea you can drink… Keller? Where’d you go?”

“I’m here,” he said. “This is out of town, right?”

“It’s White Plains,” she said. “Same as always. A scant forty minutes on Metro North. Does it all come back to you now?”

“But the job’s out of town.”

“Well, of course, Keller. I’m not about to book you in the city you call home. We tried that once, remember?”

“I remember,” he said. “The thing is, I can’t leave town.”

“You can’t leave town?”

“Not for a while.”

“What have you got, one of those house-arrest collars on your ankle? It gives you a shock if you leave your property?”

“I have to stay in New York, Dot.”

“You can’t take a train to White Plains?”

“I could do that,” he allowed. “Today, anyway. But I can’t take a job out of town.”

“For a while, you say.”

“Right.”

“How long is a while, anyway? A day? A week? A month?”

“I don’t know.”

“Drink your tea,” she said. “Maybe it’ll perk you up. And then catch the next train, and we’ll talk.”

“I think I figured it out,” she said, “but maybe not. What I decided is there’s a stamp auction that you just can’t miss, some stamp coming up that you need for your collection.”

“Dot, for God’s sake.”

“What’s the matter?”

“It’s a hobby,” he said. “I wouldn’t pass up work to go to a stamp auction.”

“You wouldn’t?”

“Of course not.”