“In a nonsmoking room? The bastards. And on top of that they were committing adultery?” She shook her head. “Triple sinners, it sounds like to me. Well, they deserved to die, and may God have mercy on their souls.”

She was reaching for her iced tea but drew her hand back as the door chime sounded. “Now who could that be?” she wondered aloud, and went to find out. He had a brief moment of panic, sure he ought to do something, unable to think what it was. He was still working on it when she came back brandishing a package.

“FedEx,” she said, and gave the parcel a shake. It didn’t make a sound. She pulled the strip to open it and drew out banded packets of currency. She slipped the wrapper off one of them and riffled the bills. “I hate to admit it,” she said, “but I’m starting to get used to the way the new bills look. Not the twenties, they still look like play money to me, but the fifties and hundreds are beginning to look just fine. You buy any stamps in Louisville?”

“A few.”

“Well,” she said, counting out stacks of bills, making piles on the table. “Now you can go buy some more.”

“I guess the customer’s satisfied.”

“Looks that way, doesn’t it?”

“You just gave them the address and they put the cash in the mail?”

“No, I told them I work for Inside Edition. It’s not the mail, anyway. It’s Federal Express.”

“Whatever.”

“There’s a cutoff man between me and the client, Keller. This particular one is a guy in-well, it doesn’t matter where, but it’s not Louisville and it’s not New York. We’ve done business for years, even before I was part of the picture.”

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She gestured toward the ceiling, and Keller understood the reference to the old man, who’d never come down from the second floor in the final years of his life. You’d think he was up there still, the way they referred to him.

“So he knows where to send the money,” she said, “and the client knows how to get it to him. No business of ours how much of it stays with him, as long as we get our price. And the client doesn’t know anything about you, or me either.” She patted the piles of money. “All he knows is we do good work. Well, a happy customer is our best advertisement, and I’d say this one’s happy. How did you do it, Keller? How’d you manage natural causes?”

“I didn’t, not exactly. It was suicide.”

“Well, that’s close enough, isn’t it? It’s not as though they had their hearts set on a lingering illness.” She drained her glass, put it down on the table. “Let’s hear it. How’d you do it?”

“When he got out of the car,” he said, “I got him in a choke hold.”

“It’s good you’re not a cop, Keller. These days that comes under the heading of police brutality.”

“I kept the pressure on until he went limp. And it would have been the most natural thing to finish the job, you know? Cut off his air a little longer. Or just break his neck.”

“Whatever.”

“And I could have left him looking like he had a heart attack and hurt himself when he fell down. Something like that. But I figured any coroner who looked twice would see it didn’t happen that way, and then it looks staged, which is probably worse from the client’s point of view than a straightforward homicide.”

“I suppose.”

“So I put him behind the wheel,” he said, “and I got out the gun they gave me-“

“The twenty-two auto, first choice of professionals from coast to coast.”

“And overseas as well, for all I know. I wrapped his hand around it and stuck the business end in his mouth.”

“And squeezed off a round.”

“No,” he said, “because who knows how far the sound is going to carry?”

“ ‘Hark, I hear the cannon’s roar.’ “

“And suppose one bullet doesn’t do it? It’s a small calibre, it’s not going to splatter his brains all over the roof liner.”

“And I guess it’s a pretty severe case of suicide if the guy has to shoot himself twice. Although you could argue that it shows determination.”

“I stayed with what I’d worked up while I was waiting for him to come home. I had a length of garden hose already cut, and I taped one end to the exhaust pipe and stuck the other end in the car window.”

“And started the engine.”

“I had to do that to get the window down. Anyway, I left him there, in a closed garage with the engine running.”

“And got the hell out.”

“Not right away,” he said. “Suppose somebody heard him drive in? They might come out to check. Or suppose he came to before the carbon monoxide level built up enough to keep him under?”

“Or suppose the engine stalled.”

“Also a possibility. I waited by the side of the car, and then I started to worry about how much exhaust I was breathing myself.”

“ ‘Two Men Gassed in Suicide Pact.’ “

“So I let myself out the side door and stood there for ten minutes. I don’t know what I would have done if I heard the engine cut out.”

“Gone in and fixed it.”

“Which is fine if it stalled, but suppose he came to and turned it off himself? And I rush in, and he’s sitting there with a gun in his hand?”

“You left him the gun?”

“Left it in his hand, and his hand in his lap. Like he was ready to shoot himself if the gas didn’t work, or if he got up the nerve.”

“Cute.”

“Well, they gave me the gun. I had to do something with it.”

“Chekhov,” she said.

“Check off what?”

She rolled her eyes. “Anton Chekhov, Keller. The Russian writer. I’ll bet you anything he’s got his picture on a stamp.”

“I know who he is,” he said. “I just misheard you, because I didn’t know we were having a literary discussion. He was a physician as well as a writer, and he wrote plays and short stories. What about him?”

“He said if you show a gun in Act One, you’d better have it go off before the final curtain.” She frowned. “At least I think it was Chekhov. Maybe it was somebody else.”

“Well, it didn’t go off,” he said, “but at least I found a use for it. He had it in his hand with his finger on the trigger, and he had a round in the chamber, and if they happen to look they’ll find traces of gun oil on his lips.”

“Now that’s a nice touch.”

“It’s great,” he agreed, “as long as there’s a body to examine, but what if he wakes up? He realizes he’s got a gun in his hand, and he looks up, and there I am.” He shrugged. “As jumpy as I was, I didn’t have a lot of trouble imagining it that way. But it didn’t happen.”

“You checked him and he was nice and dead.”

“I didn’t check. I gave him ten minutes with the engine running, and I figured that was enough. The engine wasn’t going to stall and he wasn’t going to wake up.”

“And he evidently didn’t,” she said, motioning at the money. “And everybody’s happy.” She cocked her head. “Wouldn’t there be marks on his neck from the choke hold?”

“Maybe. Would they even notice? He’s in a car, he’s got a hose hooked up, he’s holding a gun, his bloodstream’s bubbling over with carbon monoxide…”

“If I found marks on his neck, Keller, I’d just figure he tried to hang himself earlier.”

“Or choke himself to death with his own hands.”

“Is that possible?”

“Maybe for an advanced student of the martial arts.”

“Ninja roulette,” she said.

He said, “That guy I talked to, thought he was talking to Inside Edition? I asked if there were any other colorful murders in town.”

“Something worthy of national coverage.”

“He told me more than I needed to know about some cocaine dealer who got gunned down a few days before I got to town, and about some poor sonofabitch who killed his terminally ill wife, called it in to 911, then shot himself before the cops could get there.”

“Never a dull moment in Louisville.”

“He didn’t even mention Hirschhorn. So I guess it’s going in the books as a suicide.”

“Fine with me,” she said, “and the client’s happy, and we got paid, so I’m happy. And the business at the Super Duper wasn’t an attempt on your life…”

“The Super 8.”

“Whatever. It was a couple of cheaters suffering divine retribution.”

“Or bad luck.”

“Aren’t they the same thing? But here’s my question. Everybody else is happy. Why not you, Keller?”

“I’m happy enough.”

“Yeah, I’ve never seen anybody happier. What did it, the pictures of the kids? And the dog?”

He shook his head. “Once it’s done,” he said, “what’s the difference? It just gets in your way while you’re doing it, but when it’s over, well, dead is dead.”

“Right.”

“One reason I didn’t shoot was I didn’t want them walking in on a mess, but it’s the same shock either way, isn’t it? And don’t people blame themselves when there’s a suicide? ‘How could he have felt that bad and not let on?’ “

“And so on.”

“But none of that’s important. The important thing is to get it done and get away clean.”

“And you did, and that’s why you’re so happy.”

“You know what it is, Dot? I knew something was wrong.”

“What do you mean?”

“I sensed something. I had a feeling. When I get off the plane, when I can’t read the first sign, when I go through a song and dance with the moron who meets me. And later on some drunk turns up at my door and I grab the gun and I’m ready to start blasting away through the door. And it’s just some poor slob who can’t find the right room. He staggers off and never comes back, and I have to lie down and wait for my heart to quit doing the tango.”

“And then the bikers.”

“And then the bikers, and toilet paper in my ears, and the kids with the basketball. Everything was out of synch, and it felt worse than that, it felt dangerous.”

“Like you were in danger?”

“Uh-huh. But I wasn’t. It was the room.”

“The room?”

“Room One forty-seven. Something bad was scheduled to take place there. And I sensed it.”

She gave him a look.

“Dot, I know how it sounds.”

“You don’t,” she said. “Or you wouldn’t have said it.”

“Well, I wouldn’t say it to anybody but you. Remember that girl I was seeing a while ago?”

“As far as I know, you haven’t been seeing anybody since Andria.”