The first thing to do, he thought, was change his number, and to something less obvious than four-four-four. Like what? He ran three-number combinations through his head, trying to find one that was clunkier and less memorable than the others. Three-eight-one? Two-nine-four? Any number, he decided, displayed special qualities if you thought about it long enough. And, if he managed to find one that was genuinely unremarkable, one a person just couldn’t hold in his mind, then how would he remember it himself?

Besides, Dot could dig it out by trying numbers at random. How many combinations were there, anyway? He seemed to remember from high school math that there was a formula for this sort of thing, but, like most of high school math, it had long since found its way out of his memory bank.

He sat down at his desk, picked up a pencil and realized you didn’t need a formula. The numbers started at zero-zero-zero and ran to nine-nine-nine. A thousand combinations, that’s how many there were. Ten times ten times ten, that was the formula, if formulas were important to you. It sounded like a lot, a thousand, but when you thought about it you realized it wasn’t so much after all.

Years ago he’d done a job for the old man that involved a briefcase. He hadn’t thought of it in years, but he remembered now that the briefcase had been locked, not with a key but with a three-number code, one of those triple dials where you had to line up the numbers correctly to get the case open. He’d used a pair of pruning shears instead, cutting right through the leather flap, but it struck him now, years and years later, that he could have opened the case without ruining it. It would have taken more time, but it wouldn’t have taken forever.

More like two hours, he realized. Maybe even less than that. If you were systematic about it, you could easily try ten or fifteen combinations a minute. Ten a minute was a hundred minutes, and what did that amount to? An hour and forty minutes?

The pruning shears had taken no time at all. Of course it had taken him a while to find the shears, and before that he’d sawed at the flap ineffectually with a kitchen knife. But that was beside the point. A thousand combinations wouldn’t take long, not with a briefcase lock and not with a telephone answering machine, either. You’d dial the number and let the machine pick up, and then you’d punch in as many of your three-number codes as you could in the thirty seconds or so that the message played. Then you’d call back and do it again. You might make a lot of calls, but so what? You wouldn’t be leaving any messages. And, even if you did, sooner or later you’d get the right combination. And then you’d have a chance to erase them.

So changing his combination wouldn’t help. And how would Dot feel if she called up and punched in four-four-four and nothing happened? It would be a slap in the face, and not a very effective one, either, because she could run the combinations until she cracked the code.

Of course he could tell her ahead of time. “I realized anybody could do what you did and get my messages,” he could say, “so I changed the number.” She’d say it was a good idea. And, if she asked what the new number was, he’d say something about it being so unmemorable he couldn’t remember it himself. “But I’ve got it written down,” he’d say, and let it go at that.

And, if she wanted to, she’d get the new number. However you looked at it, he couldn’t keep her out of his answering machine. Unless…

Well, he could change his phone number. Get a new number, an unlisted one. With seven digits, well, that added up to ten million combinations, and it would take forever and cost a fortune, because you’d get nine million wrong numbers while you were at it.

But if he got a new number, there wouldn’t be any messages to protect. Because no one would be able to call him. Including Dot, who was his most frequent caller in the first place.

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Maybe he should just leave everything the way it was. Dot had probably been right to check his machine, just as she’d been right to check out the astrologer. He’d liked Louise, she was a nice woman, but if she was going to turn into Chatty Cathy the minute somebody mentioned a murderer’s thumb, well, that made her a definite loose end.

And Dot had snipped her off.

Imagine that. Dot, coming down on the train, wearing gloves and a little flowered hat. She hadn’t mentioned a hat, and it was hard to picture her in a hat, but it sort of fit. Gloves and a hat, and a poisoned chocolate in her handbag. And tidying up afterward, and going home.

Jesus.

Suppose she hadn’t done it. Suppose she’d told him, and left him with the task of cleaning up the potential mess he’d made. Could he have taken care of Louise?

Probably. You did what you had to do. Once or twice over the years he’d made the mistake of getting to know someone he’d been hired to take out. There was that fellow in Roseburg, Oregon, set up by the government as a quick printer, secure as could be in the Witness Protection Program. Keller had liked the man, and liked the town, too, and thought about settling down there. But in the end you did what you had to do. You steeled yourself and got the job done.

He’d forgotten the guy’s name. Both his names, the original one and the new one the feds gave him. Forgot what he looked like, too. Couldn’t picture him.

Which was fine. The way it ought to be.

He pictured Louise as he remembered her, sitting in her chair, the bowl of chocolates at her side. But the features were already growing less distinct in his mind, the colors fading toward gray.

Good.

Twenty-six

Keller put his coffee cup down, and within seconds the busboy filled it up again. He’d been wondering just how long he could sit over one cup of coffee, and it was beginning to look as though the answer was forever. Because they never let the cup get empty, and how could they expect you to leave while you still had coffee in front of you?

He let the coffee cool and looked out the window. The coffee shop was at the corner of Crosby and Bleecker, and from where Keller sat he could get a glimpse of the entrance to Maggie’s building. Watching it was a little like watching paint dry. No one ever went in or out of it, and hardly anybody even walked past it, as that block of Crosby Street didn’t get much in the way of pedestrian traffic.

Keller drank a little more coffee, and had his cup filled again, and looked up to see a man emerge from Maggie’s building. He was short and wiry, built like a jockey, and he was wearing a distressed leather jacket and carrying a metal toolbox.

He carried it to the corner and into the coffee shop, and came right over to Keller’s table. “Piece of pie,” he said.

“Most people say ‘piece of cake,’ “ Keller said.

“Huh? Oh, up there? That was a piece of cake, all right, but what I want’s a piece of pie. In fact”-he reached for the menu-“what I want’s a meal. What’s good here?”

“I’ve never been here before.”

“Yeah, but you’re here now. What did you have?”

“Coffee.”

“That’s all?” He motioned for the waitress, ordered a cheeseburger with fries, and asked what kind of pie they had. It was a tough choice, but he went with Boston cream.

“Here,” he said, when he’d finished ordering, and put three keys on the table in front of Keller. “This here lets you into the building. Upstairs, what I did was I drilled out both locks and replaced the cylinders. Light-colored key’s for the top lock, dark one’s for the bottom. Turn the top one clockwise, the bottom one counter. Nothing to it, but you’re gonna be disappointed.”

“Why?”

“Nothing there to steal. Not that I looked around, I just did what I went there to do, but I couldn’t help notice there’s no furniture. No chairs, no tables, no rug on the floor. Zip, nada, nothing. It’s not like they moved out, because there’s papers pinned to a bulletin board and clothes in the closets. But there’s no furniture. You know anything about these people?”

“I think he’s an architect.”

“Oh,” the man said. “Well, why didn’t you say so? They never have furniture. They like space. Place has got space, I’ll say that for it. One big room, fills the whole floor, and there’s not a damn thing in it but space.”

“There must be a bed,” Keller said.

“There’s a desk,” the man said. “Built in. Also some bookshelves, also built in. Far as a bed’s concerned, well, you find it, you can sleep in it. Myself, I didn’t happen to see it.”

“Oh.”

“Everything’s white,” the man said, “including the floor. Gotta be an architect. Real practical, huh? A white floor in this town?” He put down his cheeseburger, took a forkful of pie, then bit into the cheeseburger again. “I eat everything at once,” he said, a little defensively. “My whole family’s the same way. You’re going in there, right?”

“How’s that?”

“The apartment, the loft. The white space. Well, you got access. Light key’s for the top lock, but hey, if you get mixed up, what’s the problem? One key don’t work, try the other.” He picked up a french fry. “Keys are all yours, soon as you pay for ’em.”

“Oh, right,” Keller said. He passed the man an envelope, and the little locksmith put down his fork long enough to lift the flap and count the bills it contained.

“I always count,” he said, “in case it’s too much or too little. The count’s off about a third of the time, my experience, and what percentage of the time do you figure it’s in my favor?”

“Hardly ever.”

“Bingo,” the man said. “This time the count’s right, and thanks very much.”

“You’re welcome,” Keller said, picking up the keys. “And thanks for helping me out.”

“What I do,” the man said. “I’m a locksmith, licensed and bonded and on call around the clock. People lose their keys, I let ’ em in. They never had keys in the first place, well, it costs a little more.” He grinned. “You’re in a hurry, and no reason for you to stick around until I’m done. I might try that pecan pie, see if it’s as good as the Boston cream. You go ahead, and the check’s on me. The hell, all you had was coffee. Don’t forget, the bright key’s for the top lock.”

“And I turn it clockwise.”

“Whatever.” He grabbed a french fry. “You want some advice? Wear sunglasses.”

It was a small commercial building converted to residential use, with an artist’s loft taking up each of its five stories. The sculptor on the ground floor lived with his wife in Park Slope, and, according to Maggie, used his space on Crosby Street only for work. “He makes these massive hulking statues,” she had told him, “humanoid, but just barely, and they weigh a ton, so it’s good he’s on the ground floor. It takes him forever to finish a piece, but he never sells anything, so it doesn’t matter.”

“He never sells anything?”

“I was a painter for years,” she’d said, “and I never sold anything. You don’t have to sell to be an artist. In fact it’s probably easier if you don’t.”