“That’s the one.”

“The dog walker, the one with all the earrings.”

“She used to talk about karma,” he said, “and energy, and vibrations, and things like that. I didn’t always understand what she was saying.”

“Thank God for that.”

“But I think sometimes a person senses things.”

“And you sensed something was wrong.”

“And that something was going to happen.”

“Keller, something always happens.”

“Something violent.”

“When you take a business trip,” she said, “something violent is par for the course.”

“You know what I mean, Dot.”

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“You had a premonition.”

“I guess that’s what it was.”

“You checked into a room and just got the feeling that somebody was going to get killed there.”

“Not exactly, because the room felt fine to me.”

“So?”

He looked away for a moment. “I went over all this in my mind,” he said. “Last night, and again coming up here on the train today. And it made sense, but now it’s not coming out right.”

“That’s what they call a reality check, Keller. Keep going.”

“I sensed something bad coming,” he said, “and I was somehow drawn to the place where it was going to happen.”

“Like a moth to a flame.”

“I picked the motel, Dot. I looked at the map, I said here’s where I am, here’s where he lives, here’s the airport, here’s the interstate, and there ought to be a motel right here. And I drove right to it and there it was and I asked for a ground-floor room in the rear. I asked for it!”

“ ‘Give me the death room,’ you said. ‘I’m a man. I can take it.’ “

“And I panicked when the drunk came knocking, because I knew I was in a dangerous place, even if I didn’t know I knew it. That’s why I grabbed the gun, that’s why I reacted the way I did.”

“But it was only a drunk.”

“It was a warning.”

“A warning?”

He drew a breath. “Maybe it was just a drunk looking for Ralph,” he said, “and maybe it was someone sent to get my attention.”

“Sent,” she said.

“I know it sounds crazy.”

“Sent, like an angel?”

“Dot, I’m not sure I even believe in angels.”

“How can you not believe in them? They’re on television where everybody can see them. My favorite’s the young one with the bad Irish accent. Though she’s probably not as young as she looks. She’s probably a thousand years old.”

“Dot…”

“Or whatever that comes to in dog years. You don’t believe in angels? What about the bikers partying upstairs? Angels from Hell, Keller. Pure and simple.”

“Simple,” he said, “but probably not pure. But that’s the whole thing, that’s why they were there.”

“So that you would change your room.”

“Well, it worked, didn’t it?”

“And you changed your room first thing in the morning.”

“To one in front,” he said. “On the second floor.”

“Out of harm’s way. And later on who came along but two people out of a bad country song, and what room did they get?” She hummed the opening bars of the Dragnet theme. “Dum-de-dum-dum. Dum-de-dum-dum-dah! One forty-seven! The death room!”

“All I know,” he said doggedly, “is a couple of hours later they were dead.”

“While you lived to bear witness.”

“I guess it really does sound weird, doesn’t it?”

“Weirder than weird.”

“It made sense on the train.”

“Well, that’s trains for you.”

“What you said earlier, about a reality check?”

“You want my take on it?”

“Absolutely.”

“Okay,” she said. “Now you have to bear in mind that I don’t know squat about karma or angels or any of that Twilight Zone stuff. You got a bad feeling when the pickup at the airport came off a little raggedy-ass, and then the guy they sent to meet you turned out to be a turkey. And seeing the family photo didn’t help, either.”

“I already said all that.”

“Then the drunk knocked on your door, and you were edgy to begin with, and you reacted the way you did. And your own reaction made you edgier than ever.”

“Exactly how it was.”

“But all he was,” she said, “was a drunk knocking on doors. He probably knocked on every door he came to until he found Ralph. You don’t need angel’s wings to do that.”

“Go on.”

“The noisy party upstairs? Bikers aren’t exactly famous for their silent vigils. A motel’s dumb enough to rent to people like that, they’re going to have some loud parties. Somebody’s got to be downstairs from them, and this time it was you, and as soon as you could you got your room changed.”

“But if I hadn’t-“

“If you hadn’t,” she said, patiently but firmly, “then the loving couple would have wound up in some other room when they decided they couldn’t keep their hands off each other another minute. Not One forty-seven but, oh, I don’t know. Say Two oh eight.”

“But then when the husband turned up-“

“He’d have gone to Two oh eight, Keller, because that’s where they were. He was looking for them, not whatever damn fool happened to be in One forty-seven. He followed them to their room and wreaked his horrible revenge, and it had nothing to do with what room they were in and even less to do with you.”

“Oh,” he said.

“That’s your take on it? ‘Oh?’ “

“I had this whole elaborate theory,” he said, “and it was all crap, wasn’t it?”

“It was certainly out there on the crap side of the spectrum.”

“But you thought it was a coincidence. That was your first thought.”

“No, my first thought was it couldn’t be a coincidence. That it was the client, or somebody the client sent.”

“But it wasn’t.”

“No, because the client’s satisfied, and he couldn’t have found you even if he wasn’t. But that doesn’t mean it had to be angels. What it means is it really was a coincidence after all.”

“Oh.”

“And it was a coincidence for everybody in the motel, Keller, not just you. They were all there while the couple in One forty-seven was getting killed.”

“But they hadn’t just checked out of the room.”

“So? That means they had an even narrower escape. They might have checked into One forty-seven. But you couldn’t do that, because you’d already checked out of it.”

He wasn’t sure he followed that, but he let it go. “I guess it was a coincidence,” he said.

“Don’t sound so disappointed.”

“But I sensed something. I knew something was going to happen.”

“And it did,” she said. “To Mr. Hirschhorn, may he rest in peace. Go home, Keller. Those stamps you bought? Go paste them in your album. What’s the matter? Did I say something wrong?”

“You don’t paste them,” he said. “You use hinges.”

“I stand corrected.”

“Or mounts, sometimes you use mounts.”

“Whatever.”

“Anyway,” he said, “I already mounted them. Last night. I was up until three in the morning.”

“Well, isn’t that a coincidence? You’re all done mounting your stamps, and you coincidentally just came into some money.” She beamed at him. “That means you can go buy some more.”

Five

Keller speared a cube of cheese with a toothpick, helped himself to a glass of dry white wine. To his left, two young women clad entirely in black were chatting. “I can’t believe he really said that,” one announced. “I mean, just because you’re postmodern doesn’t mean you absolutely have to be an asshole.”

“ Chad would be just as big an asshole if he was a Dadaist,” the other replied. “He could be a Pre-Raphaelite, and you know what he’d be? He’d be a Pre-Raphaelite asshole.”

“I know,” the first one said. “But I still can’t believe he said that.”

They wandered off, leaving Keller to wonder who Chad was (aside from being an asshole) and what he’d said that was so hard to believe. If Chad had said it to him, he thought, he probably wouldn’t have understood it. He hadn’t understood most of the words the two women used, and he hadn’t understood anything of what Declan Niswander himself had had to say about the paintings on display.

The show’s brochure contained photographs of several of the works, along with a brief biography of the artist, a chronological listing of his one-man and group shows, and another list of the museums and private collections in which he was represented. The last two pages were given over to Niswander’s own explanation of what he’d been trying to do, and Keller knew what most of the words meant, but he couldn’t make head or tail out of the sentences. The man didn’t seem to be writing about art at all, but about philosophical determinism and the evanescence of imagery and casuistry as a transcendent phenomenon. Words Keller recognized, every one of them, but what were they doing all jumbled together like that?

The paintings, on the other hand, weren’t at all hard to understand. Unless there was something to them that he wasn’t getting, something that the two pages in the brochure might clarify for someone who spoke the language. That was possible, because Keller didn’t feel he himself understood art in a particularly profound way.

He hardly ever went to galleries, and only once before had he attended an opening. That had been a few years back, when he went to one in SoHo with a woman he’d seen a couple of times. The opening was her idea. The artist was an old friend of hers-an ex-lover, Keller figured-and she hadn’t wanted to show up unescorted. Keller had been introduced to the artist, a scruffy guy with a potbelly, whose paintings were drab and murky seas of brown and olive drab. He hadn’t wanted to say as much to the artist, and didn’t know what you were supposed to say, so he’d just smiled and kept his mouth shut. He figured that got you through most situations.

He tried the wine. It wasn’t very good, and it reminded him of the wine they’d served at that other opening. Maybe bad wine was part of the mystique, bad wine and rubbery cheese and people dressed in black. Black jeans, black T-shirts, black chinos, black turtlenecks and sweatshirts, and the occasional black sport jacket. Here and there a black beret.

Not everyone was wearing black. Keller had shown up in a suit and tie, and he wasn’t the only one. There was a variety of other attire, including a few women in dresses and a young man in white overalls spattered with paint. But there was, on balance, a great deal of black, and it was the men and women in black who looked most at home here.