“I guess so, but that part’s not up to us. He’s remanded to custody until sentencing.”

“He’ll get what, a couple of years?”

“Something like that.”

“You went down to Baltimore and clipped a woman, and then you came back to New York and put a man away for a few years for selling a hot television set.”

“A VCR.”

“Well, that makes all the difference. Don’t you see a contradiction here, Keller? Or at least an irony?”

He thought about it. “No,” he said. “One’s my job and the other’s my duty.”

“And you did them both.”

“That’s right.”

“And we got paid, and Huberman’s headed upstate.”

“That’s right,” he said. “The system works.”

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Twenty-four

Odd, Keller thought.

He’d called his astrologer, Louise Carpenter, the night he came back from Baltimore. He couldn’t remember why, something about wondering if the moon was full, and you didn’t have to call an expert to determine something like that. He supposed he’d just had the urge to talk to her, and when she didn’t answer he got over it.

Then a week or so later he called again, and it wasn’t Sunday evening this time, it was a weekday, and normal business hours, if there was such a thing for an astrologer. Middle of the afternoon, middle of the week, and no answer. No answering machine, either.

He’d frowned, puzzled, and then he’d decided she was out of town. Astrologers very likely took vacations, just like anybody else. Maybe she was on a beach somewhere, looking up at the stars.

He’d let it go, and hadn’t thought about the woman since, until the call from Dot.

He was reading a stamp magazine when she called, absorbed in a story about forged overprints on early French colonial issues. There were a lot of legitimate varieties, as well as an abundance of forgeries, and it wasn’t all that easy to tell the difference. He was wondering if he had any forgeries in his own collection, and if there was any point in finding out, when the phone rang.

“Our friend’s been busy,” she said.

“Our friend?”

“We’ve been calling him Roger.”

“You know,” he said, “he was on my mind a lot for a while there, and then he wasn’t. I couldn’t tell you when I last thought of him.”

“The big question, Keller, is whether he’s thinking of you.”

“And the answer is yes, or you wouldn’t be calling.”

“He may not be thinking of you personally,” she said, “because he doesn’t know you personally, which I’d have to say is a good thing. But it’s clear he hasn’t decided to take up golf, or anything else that might distract him from his primary purpose, and you remember what that is.”

“Narrowing the field,” he said.

“It just got narrower. There was a job I turned down, and it’s a good thing I did.”

“I guess you’d better tell me about it.”

“Tomorrow morning,” she said, “hop on a train and come see me.”

“I could come up now, Dot.”

“No,” she said, “wait until tomorrow. I’ve got some things to line up first, Keller, and then we’re going to have to make some moves. We’ve been waiting for this clown to dry up and blow away, and it’s not going to happen. Unless we make it happen.”

“How?”

“Tomorrow morning,” she said.

He hung up, and the first thing that popped into his head was the astrologer. He could call her, and she could give him some idea of just how dangerous a time this was. He tried the number, and this time the phone only rang once. Then a recording came on, informing him that the number he had called was no longer in service.

He tried it again, figuring he’d dialed wrong, and he got the same recording. No longer in service.

Odd.

Her apartment was clear across town on West End Avenue between Ninety-seventh and Ninety-eighth. While the West Indian driver clucked at the traffic, Keller sat back and wondered why he was making the trip. He got off at the corner and found the building, but couldn’t spot a buzzer with her name on it. He checked the building on either side, even though he was certain he had the right one, and he didn’t see her name there, either.

He caught another cab and went home.

There was only one person he could think of who might know where Louise Carpenter had disappeared to. That was Maggie Griscomb, and he didn’t want to call her.

He had to look up the number, and then he had to force himself to dial it. By the time it had rung twice he was ready to hang up, but then she picked up in the middle of the third ring. He could still hang up, and he considered it, and she said hello again, the irritation evident in her tone, and he said, “I’ve been trying to reach Louise.”

He hadn’t meant to blurt it out that way. Hello, hi, how are you, di dah di dah di dah, and then he could bring up the business at hand. But something had made him cut to the chase, and there was a pause, and then she said, “It’s you.”

What could you say to something like that? Keller was stumped, and before he could come up with anything, she said, “You’ve got a lot of nerve. How come you didn’t call?”

“You told me not to call. Remember?”

“Vividly. And then when you didn’t call-“

Because you told me not to, he thought.

“-I called, and I left messages, and I never heard from you.”

“I never got the messages.”

“Yeah, right.”

Had she left messages? No, of course not. He already regretted this call, and he hadn’t even gotten to the point of it yet. “I’ve been having trouble with my answering machine,” he said, “and you can believe me or not, it doesn’t matter. I’ve been trying to reach Louise, and-“

“Why?”

“The astrologer,” he said.

“That’s who. What I asked you was why.”

“Why?”

“You don’t need an astrologer,” she said, “to know which way the stars are falling. You want her number, look it up. She’s in the book.”

“But that’s just it,” he said, and then he let it go, because he was talking to himself. She had hung up on him.

“It seems to me,” Dot said, “that we’ve got two choices. We can wait passively for the situation to resolve itself, or we can take a proactive approach.”

“That’s a word you never used to hear,” Keller said, “and now you hear it all the time. I know what it means, but what’s the point of it? Why not just say active?”

“It sounds better.”

“It does?”

“Sure. Proactive, like you’re really getting off your ass and doing something, and being professional about it, too. And I would have to say it’s about time. We’ve been taking precautions, but all that means is that Roger’s been killing other people. It would be nice if one of them caught on and turned the tables on him, but he’s a pro and he’s active and he takes them by surprise, so what chance have they got? He just keeps on doing what he does best, and we’re turning down jobs and looking over our shoulders when we do take one, and it’s about time we turned that around.”

“And hunted him down,” he said.

“And left him with a stake through his heart, because with a guy like that you want to make sure.”

“But how, Dot? How would you find him? Where would you start?”

“He has to come to us.”

He nodded. “We set a trap,” he said, “and draw him right into it.”

“There you go.”

“How? Offer him a job? He won’t take it. Unless-“

“What?”

“Well,” he said, “if the job was to hit a hit man, wouldn’t he make an exception? I mean, he’s been doing that for free, and if he was going to get paid for it-“

“I’d call him with a contract for a hit man.”

“Right.”

“And not just any hit man. I presume we’re talking about you.”

“Right.”

“So I give him your name and your address and a reasonably flattering photograph of you, while you sit home in front of the TV and listen for footsteps. Do I have to explain why that’s a bad idea?”

“No.”

“I’ve been working on this for a while,” she said, “so why don’t I lay it out for you? What I do, I call Roger and leave word, and he picks up the message and calls back on some hi-tech untraceable line, and I run down a contract I want to give him. I give him the name and address, and he mulls it over and turns it down.”

“And?”

“And I give it to somebody else.”

“Me? No, that wouldn’t make sense. Who would you give it to?”

“Some other pro. What I’d probably do is call another contractor and let him find somebody. Not that there are a hell of a lot of people left to be found, but whoever he picked wouldn’t have to be all that slick. Once he was on the case, I’d call Roger and tell him not to worry, that I managed to get somebody else. You beginning to get the picture?”

“I think so.”

“You stake out the mark’s house and wait for the two of them to show up. One of them’ll be a guy looking to do what he was hired to do. The other’ll be Roger.”

“How do I know which is which?”

“You could just kill ’em both,” she said, “and let God sort ’em out, like it says on the T-shirt. But I don’t think so. What you’d do is wait for one of them to take out the mark. Whoever does that, the other one is Roger.”

Keller was nodding. “And once the hit’s been made,” he said, “he’ll be ready to take out the hitter. So I follow the hitter and keep an eye out for Roger.”

“When he’s ready to make his move,” she said, “that’s when you make yours. If you can nail him before he does his thing, so much the better. If not, well, you tried. Either way, Roger’s off the board.”

“With a stake through his heart.” He frowned. “I’d want to get him in time. Be a shame to let some innocent guy get killed for nothing.”

“Innocent’s a stretch, since he’d have just finished taking out the mark. But I know what you mean.”

“The mark,” Keller said. “I hadn’t even thought of him. He was sort of hypothetical, because you don’t really have a job for Roger, or for Mr. Second Choice, either. That’s just a trap, but a trap has to have bait in it, doesn’t it?”

“It does if you expect to catch anything.”

“So who’s the bait? If it’s not me, who is it? Do you just pick some poor mope at random?”

“That’d be a way to do it. Keller, you look unhappy.”

“The bait probably gets killed, right?”

“Since the bait wouldn’t have any reason to suspect a thing, and since there’d be not one but two world-class hit men on the case, I’d have to say the bait’s chances are less than average.”