“Once. And there was nothing in the papers then, either.”

“His trademark, I guess.”

“Hers.”

“Pardon?”

“Her trademark.”

“The hitter was a woman? We just said there weren’t any outside of the movies.”

“You’re the one said that, Keller. I didn’t say anything.”

He replayed the conversation in his head, shrugged. “Whatever,” he said. “A woman, huh? And you used her before?”

Dot nodded, then raised a hand and pointed at the ceiling. Keller looked up, saw nothing remarkable but a light fixture with one of its bulbs burned out. Then he got it and his jaw dropped.

Twenty-five

“The old man,” he said.

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“Sometimes it amazes me how quick you are on the uptake.”

“But that was you, Dot. He was losing it, and he was talking about hiring a kid to help him write his memoirs, and you sent me off somewhere and did it yourself.”

“Sent you to Kansas City,” she said. “Your first stamp auction, if I remember correctly.”

“And you did Louise, too? Why, for God’s sake?”

“Short notice,” she said. “There was a window of opportunity, and who knew how long it would be open? And it wasn’t just a matter of taking her out. It had to be quiet, so you wouldn’t read about it. And somebody had to go through her files, somebody who would know what to look for. So I called her up and made another appointment.”

“With him it was a sleeping pill in his cocoa and a pillow over the face.”

“I didn’t figure that would work with her. I thought maybe hit her over the head, make it look like a break-in that went bad.”

“Makes sense.”

“You get cops that way, but they start out looking for burglars, or if they smell a rat they take a good long look at her personal life. Still, who wants them looking at all?”

“You never know what they’ll find.”

“So I sat there, pretending to be fascinated by all of this astrological crap, all of it in a voice so sweet and gentle it could lull you to sleep, with a pause now and then so she can pop another of those chocolates. ‘Those look good,’ I said, and she held out the plate for me to take one.”

“Oh.”

“I took a couple,” she said, “and I ate one, and I have to say it wasn’t bad, but I’d hate to stuff myself with that crap all day long. I managed to drop the other one in my handbag. End of the session I made another appointment, and when I kept it I was prepared. ‘Those look good,’ I said, and when she passed the plate I made like the Great Spaldini, master of sleight of hand.”

“You put back the chocolate you took the time before.”

“And took a fresh one for myself, all in a single movement faster than the eye could follow. I practiced in front of a mirror, Keller. You want to feel ridiculous, that’s as good a way as any.”

“You’d have to be careful not to wind up with the same one you started with.”

“Tell me about it.”

“It’d be a hard mistake to make,” he said. “I mean, you’re picking up a fresh one at the same time you’re planting the one you brought along. But then, when it’s time to pop the thing in your mouth, you start to wonder.”

“A mind is a terrible thing to have,” she said. “I knew I hadn’t screwed up, and even so I took a good look at the bottom of the one I wound up with, looking for the telltale pinprick.”

“You used a hypodermic needle.”

She nodded. “I don’t know why I didn’t just palm the chocolate and get rid of it,” she said, “but somehow I felt compelled to eat it. I didn’t see a pinhole on the bottom, so of course I decided it had sealed itself in the course of being handled. So I told myself, the hell, either it’s in the stars or it isn’t, and I ate the chocolate.”

“Thinking it might be poisoned.”

“Knowing it wasn’t, but yes, thinking it might be. And wouldn’t you know it had a nut in it, and I was sure I was tasting bitter almonds.”

“You used cyanide.”

“That’s the thing,” she said. “I didn’t, I used something else, it’s got a chemical name a mile long, and who even knows what the hell it tastes like? Not bitter almonds, I’ll be willing to bet, but that’s what I decided I was tasting, and, well, you can imagine what went through my mind.”

“All while you’re pretending to enjoy the chocolate.”

“Smacking my lips over it. ‘Oh, Louise, these are so good.’ Which is just brilliant, because of course she offers me another. ‘No, I don’t dare,’ I said, and truer words were never spoken. So I sat there and waited for her to pick the candy with the prize in it.”

“Couldn’t you just go home?”

“And wait for nature to take its course? No, because I had to search the place, remember?”

“Oh, right.”

“And I also had to hear all about my boyfriend and how Jupiter trined Pluto in his twenty-second house.”

“I think there are only twelve houses.”

“There used to be, but then the developers came in.”

“I never understood that part, the houses. Anyway, what boyfriend?”

“The one I made up. A handsome widower who had taken an interest in me. Keller, I had to have some reason to go see her again. I made up a boyfriend and made up a birthday for him, and she was doing his chart and seeing if it was compatible with mine.”

“And was it?”

“We were going to have problems, and it wouldn’t work out in the long run, but she felt it was worth pursuing for the time being. Of course he didn’t exist and she had the wrong birthday for me, but other than that it was right on the money.” She rolled her eyes. “And I’m pretending to listen to all this crap, and what I’m doing is waiting for her to pop a chocolate. But she’s too caught up in what she’s telling me, and when she finally stops to catch her breath and actually does take a piece of candy, it’s the wrong one. Which I don’t know, of course, until she bites into it and nothing happens.”

“Jesus.”

“What’s interesting,” she said, “is the way my mind worked. You know, I started out feeling sort of bad about the whole thing. She was a nice woman, and she was trying to help me out, and it was a shame what I had to do. But then, when she keeps not picking the right chocolate…”

“You got angry with her.”

“That’s right! She was making my life difficult, she was refusing to cooperate, she was not doing what she was supposed to do. Does that happen with you?”

“All the time. Like it’s their fault that they’re hard to kill.”

“I wanted to yell at her. ‘Eat the chocolate, you fat slob!’ But I just sat there, and I got to a point where I almost forgot about it, and then she took a piece of candy and bit into it, and bingo.”

“And?”

“It was worse than the other time. She made these sounds, got this expression on her face. Thrashed her arms around, flopped all over the place. There was a moment there when I would have stopped it if I could. But of course I couldn’t.”

“No.”

“And then she stopped flopping and gave a long sigh and it was over. And then I didn’t feel anything, not really, because what was the point? She was dead. She didn’t feel anything and neither did I.”

“You must have wanted to get out of there.”

“Of course, but I had things to do. First I waited to make sure she was dead, and then I went on an expedition. I found a file with your name on it. It had what I guess was your chart, and some notes I couldn’t make head or tail out of. I found my file, too, under the name I’d given her. I took them both and got rid of them.”

“Good.”

“I went through her appointment book. This was my third appointment, so I was in there three times. Just a name, Helen Brown, with no address and no phone number, and nothing in her files, so I left it. It wasn’t going to lead anywhere. You were in there, but so many months ago I couldn’t believe anybody would check that far back. Still, I inked out your name with Magic Marker, but then I decided they’d have ways to see what was originally written there, so I just tore out the page.”

“Couldn’t hurt.”

“I had a quick look-see through her things. That felt weird, so I didn’t spend much time on it. I found some cash in her underwear drawer, a few thousand dollars.”

“You take it?”

“I thought about it. I mean, money doesn’t care where it came from, right? But what I did was leave all but five hundred right where I found it, and I put the five hundred in her handbag.”

“So it wouldn’t look like a break-in.”

“Right. But that doesn’t really make sense, because what burglar slips his victim a poisoned chocolate? I guess I wasn’t thinking too clearly.”

“If you got away with it,” he said, “your thinking was clear enough.”

“I guess so. I left her there and went home. I thought, should I call it in? But the people at 911 have got Caller ID, they know where all the calls come from.”

“Besides, what’s your hurry?”

“That’s what I decided. The longer it takes before the body’s found, the less likely they are to smell a rat.”

“Bad choice of words.”

“Bad choice of… oh, right. Anyway, the stuff I gave her winds up looking like a heart attack. It actually gives you one, that’s how it works. Of course it would show up if they looked for it, but why would they look for it? She was a good fifty pounds overweight, she led a sedentary life, she was old enough to have a heart attack-“

“How old do you have to be? Never mind, I know what you mean.”

“I wore gloves all the time, like a nice little suburban lady, so there were no fingerprints to worry about. And I left and pulled the door shut, and it locked behind me, and I went home.”

“Steeped in the satisfaction of a job well done.”

“Well, I don’t know about that,” she said. “I got home and poured myself a stiff drink, and then I poured it down the sink, because what do I want with a drink?”

“You were never a drinker.”

“No, but this time I had the impulse anyway, which shows how I felt. I sat there and watched her die, Keller. I never did anything like that before.”

“It was different with the old man.”

“Apples and bananas. He didn’t kick his feet and throw his arms around and make noises. He was asleep, and I just made sure he wouldn’t wake up. And you know what he was like. It was an act of mercy.” She made a face. “With the star lady, it was no act of mercy. The picture in my mind, the expression on her face, mercy had nothing to do with it.”

“It’ll fade, Dot.”

“Huh?”