“This is a motel,” Keller said. “Who comes here on foot?”
“What I mean, I took one look at them and thought they were bikers. Like Hell’s Angels? But they came in a car.”
He was silent, and Keller could tell how much he wanted to ask a roomful of outlaw bikers to keep it down. “Look,” he said, “nobody has to talk to them. Just put me in another room.”
“Didn’t I say, when you first walked in? We’re full up. The No Vacancy sign’s been lit for hours.”
“So I don’t know what to tell you. Unless…”
“Well, unless you wanted to call in a complaint to the police. Those guys might pay a little more attention to the cops than to you or me.”
Just what he wanted. Officer, could you tell the Hell’s Angels upstairs to pipe down? I’ve got urgent business in your town and I need my rest. My name? Well, it’s different from the one I’m registered under. The nature of my business? Well, I’d rather not say. And the gun on the bedside table is unregistered, and that’s why I didn’t leave it in the car, and don’t ask me whose car it is, but the registration’s in the glove compartment.
“That’s a little abrupt,” he said. “Think how you’d feel if somebody called the cops on you without any warning.”
“And if they figured out who called them-“
“I could call the Clarion,” the clerk offered. “At the next interchange? But my guess is they’re full up by now.”
It was a little late to be driving around looking for a room. Keller told him not to bother. “Maybe they’ll make it an early night,” he said, “or maybe I’ll get used to it. You wouldn’t happen to have some ear plugs in one of those drawers, would you?”
The bikers didn’t make it an early night, nor did Keller have much success getting used to the noise. The clerk hadn’t had ear plugs, or known where they might be available. The nearest drugstore was closed for the night, and he didn’t know where Keller might find one open. Would a 7-Eleven be likely to stock ear plugs? He didn’t know, and neither did Keller.
After another hour of biker bedlam, Keller was about ready to find out for himself. He’d finished recording his new stamps in his catalog, but found the operation less diverting than usual. The noise from above kept intruding. With the job done and the stamps and catalog tucked away, he found a movie on television and kicked the volume up a notch. It didn’t drown out the din from upstairs, but it did let him make out what William Holden was saying to Debra Paget.
There was no point, he found, in hitting the Mute button during the commercials, because he needed the TV sound to cancel out the bikers. And what good was TV if you couldn’t mute the commercials?
He watched as much of the movie as he could bear, then got into bed. Eventually he got up, moistened scraps of toilet paper, made balls of them, and stuffed them in his ears. His ears felt strange-why wouldn’t they, for God’s sake? But he got used to it, and the near silence was almost thrilling.
Keller awoke to the faint sound of a phone ringing in the apartment next to his. Funny, he thought, because he couldn’t usually hear anything next door. His was a prewar building, and the walls were good and thick, and-
He sat up, shook off the mantle of sleep, and realized he wasn’t in his apartment, and that the telephone ringing ever so faintly was right there on the bedside table, its little red bubble lighting up every time it rang. And just what, he wondered, was the point of that? So that deaf guests would be aware that the phone was ringing? What good would it do them? What could they do about it, pick up the receiver and wiggle their fingers at the mouthpiece?
He answered the phone and couldn’t hear a thing. “Speak up,” he said. “Is anybody there?” Then he realized he had little balls of toilet paper in his ears. “Hell,” he said. “Just hold on a minute, will you?” He put the receiver down next to the gun and dug the wads of paper out of his ears. They had dried, of course, rather like papier mвchй, and it took some doing to get them out. He thought whoever it was would have hung up by then, but no, his caller was still there.
“Sorry to disturb you,” she said, “but we’ve got you down for a room change. A second-floor unit? Housekeeping just finished with your new room, and I thought you might want to pick up the key and transfer your luggage.”
He looked at his watch and was astonished to note that it was past ten. The noise had kept him up late and the toilet-paper-induced silence had kept him sleeping. He showered and shaved, and it was eleven o’clock by the time he’d packed his things and moved to Room 210.
Once you were inside it with the door closed, the new room was indistinguishable from the one he’d just vacated. The same twin double beds, the same desk and dresser, the same two prints-a fisherman wading in a stream, a boy herding sheep-on the same concrete-block walls. Its second-floor front location, on the other hand, was the precise opposite of where he’d been.
Years ago a Cuban had told him always to room on the ground floor, in case he had to jump out the window. The Cuban, it turned out, was acting less on tradecraft than on a fairly severe case of acrophobia, so Keller had largely discounted the advice. Still, old habits died hard, and when offered a choice he usually took the ground floor.
Way his luck was running, this would be the time he had to go out the window.
After breakfast he drove into downtown Louisville and left the car in a parking ramp, the gun locked in the glove compartment. There was a security desk in the lobby of Hirschhorn’s office building. Keller didn’t figure it would be too much of a challenge, but he couldn’t see the point. There would be other people in Hirschhorn’s office, and then he’d have to ride down on the elevator and fetch the car from where he’d parked it. He exited the lobby, walked around for twenty minutes, then collected his car and drove over the bridge into Indiana. He rode around long enough to get lost and straightened out again, then stopped at a convenience store to top up the gas tank and use the phone.
“This fellow I’ve got to see,” he said. “What do we know about him?”
“We know the name of his damn dog,” Dot said. “How much more do you need to know about anybody?”
“I went looking for his office,” he said, “and I didn’t know what name to hunt for in the directory.”
“Wasn’t his name there?”
“I don’t know,” he said, “because I didn’t go in for a close look, not knowing what to look for. Aside from his own name, I mean. Like if there’s a company name listed, I wouldn’t know what company.”
“Unless it was the Hirschhorn Company.”
“Well,” he said.
“Does it matter, Keller?”
“Probably not,” he said, “or I would have figured out a way to learn what I had to know. Anyway, I ruled out going to the office.”
“So why are you calling me, Keller?”
“Well,” he said.
“Not that I don’t welcome the sound of your voice, but is there a point to all this?”
“Probably not. I had trouble getting to sleep, there were Hell’s Angels partying upstairs.”
“What kind of place are you staying at, Keller?”
“They gave me a new room. Dot, do we know anything about the guy?”
“If I know it, so do you. Where he lives, where he works-“
“Because he seems so white-bread suburban, and yet he’s got enemies who give you a car with a gun in the glove compartment. And a spare clip.”
“So you can shoot him over and over again. I don’t know, Keller, and I’m not even sure the person who called me knows, but if I had to come up with one word it would be gambling.”
“He owes money? They fly in a shooter over a gambling debt?”
“That’s not where I was going. Are there casinos there?”
“There’s a race track,” he said.
“No kidding, Keller. The Kentucky Derby, di dah di dah di dah, but that’s in the spring. City’s on a river, isn’t it? Have they got one of those riverboat casinos?”
“Well, maybe they’ve got casino gambling and he wants to get rid of it, or they want to have it and he’s in the way.”
“Or it’s something entirely different, because this sort of thing’s generally on a need-to-know basis, and I don’t.” She sighed. “And neither do you, all things considered.”
“You’re right,” he said. “You want to know what it is, Dot? I’m out of synch.”
“Out of synch.”
“Ever since I got off the goddam plane and walked up to the wrong guy. Tell me something. Why would anyone meet a plane carrying an unreadable sign?”
“Maybe they told him to pick up a dyslexic.”
“It’s the same as the little red light on the phone.”
“Now you’ve lost me, Keller. What little red light on the phone?”
“Never mind. You know what I just decided? I’m going to cut through all this crap and just do the job and come home.”
“Jesus,” she said. “What a concept.”
The convenience store clerk was sure they had ear plugs. “They’re here somewhere,” she said, her nose twitching like a rabbit’s. Keller wanted to tell her not to bother, but he sensed she was already committed to the hunt. And, wouldn’t you know it, she found them. Sterile foam ear plugs, two pairs to the packet, $1.19 plus tax.
After all she’d gone through, how could he tell her he’d changed his room and didn’t need them, that he’d just asked out of curiosity? Oh, these are foam, he considered saying. I wanted the titanium ones. But that would just set her off on a twenty-minute hunt for titanium ear plugs, and who could say she wouldn’t find some?
He paid for them and told her he wouldn’t need a bag. “It’s a good thing they’re sterile,” he said, pointing to the copy on the packet. “If they started breeding we’d have ’em coming out of our ears.”
She avoided his eyes as she gave him his change.
He drove back to Kentucky, then out to Norbourne Estates and Winding Acres Drive. He passed Hirschhorn’s house and couldn’t tell if anyone was home. He circled the block and parked where he could keep an eye on the place.
On his way there he’d seen school buses on their afternoon run, and, shortly after he parked and killed the engine, one evidently made a stop nearby, because kids in ones and twos and threes began to show up on Winding Acres Drive, walking along until they either turned down side streets or disappeared into houses. One pair of boys stopped at the Hirschhorn driveway, and the shorter of the two went into the garage and emerged dribbling a basketball. They dropped their book bags at the side of the driveway, shucked their jackets, and began playing a game which seemed to involve shooting in turn from different squares of the driveway. Keller wasn’t sure how the game worked, but he could tell they weren’t very good at it.